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Issue 323 – August 1, 2012

Rule No. 86:
• Keep your eye on the heavens and your feet close to the ground.

U.S. Army Captain John Green (photo above) is one of the most dedicated Soldier-Scouters it’s become my honor to know. He’s served our country in multiple tours in Iraq. While there and following his tours, he was deeply involved with the Green Zone Scouting Council in Baghdad (brother to the nearby Victory Base Scouting Council). He’s recently chosen to go back to the region. Afghanistan this time. As a medical officer, he’s as close to the “front” as anyone can get. Yet, in his spare time, what does he do? He introduces the children of the country to the wonders (and principles) of Scouting. He’s not alone. Other military officers and enlisted men and women are there, too, helping establish Scouting in this tortured country.

I had the delight and honor of meeting John personally at the Philmont Training Center a few years ago. We were both enrolled in a weeklong course on (no surprise) international Scouting. We’d been corresponding before this, but neither of us had mentioned what we’d be doing that summer, so it came as a complete shock to us both when we met face-to-face. It was truly one of those “John…? Andy…? Oh-my-gosh!” moments.

So if you happen to know a Scout who’s looking for a “role model”…a true and humble hero who simply “does it” without thought of reward or praise, tell him he doesn’t have to look further than John Green.
Dear Andy,

I’m a District Advancement Chair, and we have a local problem: a troop and Scoutmaster delaying the “approval” for a Scout to work on a merit badge.

In your June 22, 2012 column you said, “…the BSA’s national advancement team has stated clearly and without equivocation that a Scoutmaster cannot ‘decide’ to withhold his signature from any registered Scout seeking to begin any merit badge, at any time. The ‘approval’ means only that the Scout is indeed a registered youth member of the BSA; it means nothing more. No Scoutmaster is permitted to apply ‘judgment’ regarding any Scout’s age, abilities, rank, or interest. He is to sign the merit badge application and provide the Scout with name and contact information of a registered Merit Badge Counselor. End of story.”

I’m being challenged on that, and after reading through the current advancement guidelines yet again, all I can find is this: “Though a few merit badges may have certain restrictions; short of them, any registered Scout may work on any of them at any time, as long as he has the approval of his unit leader.” This is in the new GUIDE TO ADVANCEMENT (section and it’s being used to delay approval, based on an interpretation to the effect that if it weren’t discretionary, the “as long as he has the approval” part wouldn’t be necessary.

Do you have any reference you could point me to where the national advancement team has stated that a unit leader’s signature isn’t discretionary? (Name & Council Withheld)

Y’know, sometimes there’s just no cure for stupid. I cannot imagine a single valid reason why a Scoutmaster whose heart is in the encouragement and development of boys and young men would arbitrarily keep a Scout from trying for a merit badge he’s interested in.

“Any Scout may work on any merit badge at any time,” means that a Scoutmaster does not have the authority to withhold approval. If this Scoutmaster hasn’t figured this out, he should be brought before the troop committee, committee chair, and chartered organization representative, and thereupon summarily fired.

Andy, I’d certainly agree that it’s not something to be done arbitrarily, but what about a case where a Scout isn’t ready, emotionally or physically or both, to do the work required for a merit badge? The way it’s written, there’s enough ambiguity in the wording to make it an argument that’s difficult to settle. That’s why I’m hoping you can point me to somewhere that the advancement team has made a further statement of some sort that sheds light on this issue. (N&CW)

What you’ve described is not for a Scoutmaster to judge. That’s the Merit Badge Counselor’s responsibility, and the Scoutmaster is usurping it. Worse, by interceding between the Scout and the Merit Badge Counselor, the Scoutmaster is denying the Scout the opportunity to grow and develop through the counseling process. Instead, the Scout will be left to stagnate until such time as the Scoutmaster, in his infinite wisdom, “decides” that the Scout is now “ready” to proceed. This is utterly and entirely wrong. It is so wrong that I feel nothing but disgust at the Scoutmaster’s abuse of power over youth development.

But there’s more, for you to use in quelling any further “conversations” on this subject…

Thank you for posing your question to Andy, who has reached out to us. This particular issue has received a lot of attention since the GUIDE TO ADVANCEMENT was published, even though the “approval” part of the language was taken from the SCOUTMASTER HANDBOOK. We’ve been monitoring some of the discussion groups, however, and the BSA National Advancement Committee has reached a resolution on how this will be treated. The Committee has decided to change the language that will appear with the Unit Leader signature on the next reprint of the Application for Merit Badge (aka “blue card”). It will no longer be “…is qualified to begin working for the merit badge noted on the reverse side” and will become “I have discussed this merit badge with this Scout and recommended at least one merit badge counselor.” (Note that this wording may change slightly as it goes through the national BSA editing process; but its purpose and intent will not.)

The next step will be revised language in the GTA, which will define the unit leader’s role as that of an adviser; not an approval authority. If a unit leader, for whatever reason, believes a Scout isn’t “ready” for a merit badge, the unit leader can try to lead the Scout to something else; however, it is the intention of the Boy Scouts of America that the decision to proceed with a merit badge belongs to the Scout. (Advancement Team, Program Impact Department, BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA-Council Operations)
Dear Andy,

My best friend’s son is an Eagle candidate and has asked me to write a letter of recommendation to his Eagle Scout board of review. I’m very honored, since I have known this young man from birth and I’ve always been very proud of him and his achievements, especially now.

I’ve written letters of recommendation before (people always like letters from police officers), but not one for this purpose. I want this one to be special. I’ve searched the Internet for advice, templates, and such, but found little any use. So I’m coming to my best guide—You!

Since this Scout hasn’t been in my pack or troop, I haven’t spent a lot of time with him in the Scouting environment except for our council’s past four fall Camporees, where he’s been one of my Scout shooting range staffers. We’ve spent much more time camping, canoeing, and other family activities together. I’m also aware of how much time he gives to the OA, his troop, his church, and his community. How can I describe those things without it sounding like a form letter? What exactly should I cover? Also, do I need to tell the reader who I am or what my background in scouting or professionally is? (Bobby Taylor)

First, let’s understand that there’s neither a maximum nor minimum length, and neither the Scout nor any of his family will ever see your letter; it will be read at the board of review only, and it won’t be retained.

So here’s my advice: Don’t look for some sort of “template” or “model” for a letter like this; simply write from your heart. Write your letter using the same words you’d use if you were speaking with someone about this young man. Avoid adjectives like” honest” or “good” and use actual examples instead. Remember that you’re commenting on how well this young man lives by the Scout Oath and Law in his daily life, and stick to facts. Yes, do take a moment at the front to tell the reader how you and this young man know one another, and then use the rest of the page to describe your impression of him. Keep it simple, to the point, and from your heart. That’s it!
Dear Andy,

Who can we petition to create a lacrosse belt loop and pin for the Cub Scout Sports program? (Greg Martinez, CM, National Capital Area Council)

Write to: Your thoughts and ideas will be forwarded on to the appropriate BSA department personnel.
Dear Andy,

Back in 2009 you said that Eagle projects weren’t considered a “unit activity.” In the newest Eagle Scout Service Project Workbooks and Guide to Safe Scouting, it’s stated: “All Eagle Scout service projects constitute official Scouting activity and thus are subject to BSA policies and procedures.” Just wanting to know if you’ve changed your stance from ’09. (Max Wells, Indian Nations Council, OK)

Eagle Scout service projects have always been subject to “BSA policies and procedures.” But to your question: Nope.

That’s interesting. At the moment, my council advancement committee would disagree. (Max Wells)

Per the GTSS (p. 4): “There are a few instances, such as patrol activities, when the presence of adult leaders is not required and adult leadership may be limited to training and guidance of the patrol leadership. With the proper training, guidance, and approval by the troop leaders, the patrol can conduct day hikes and service projects” (understanding that “patrol activities” is used as an example and is not meant to be exclusive). This indicates that while your council’s advancement committee might want to be “extra” safe, they may not need to be and might, in fact, be negatively influencing an Eagle candidate’s opportunity to “give leadership” to his project.

Thanks for pointing this out. It probably won’t fly though, because the statement requires “approval by the troop leaders.” An Eagle project is not going to get that type of approval due to what the Project Workbook says about “unit activity” and the very real possibility of many of the helpers being non-Scouts. Living in this litigious society as we do, combined with the “unit activity” text, the new GTSS updates coming out on age-appropriate tools and service project planning guides, and non-scout participation in Eagle projects, we’d be fools to ignore “two-deep leadership” in this scenario. I’m always one to be looking for the rulebook text offering the most flexibility in Scouting activities. But I think if we hung our hats on that one citation, and some young Scout (or even worse, some non-Scout) lost a finger using a hedge trimmer on an unsupervised Eagle project, all hell would break loose. And the way training and guidance is going these days with some adults, I’m not so sure even two-deep is enough, sometimes (unfortunately, training can’t cure stupid). I appreciate your insights, but I don’t have a warm fuzzy relying on this one paragraph out of the GTSS, and my council won’t, either. But at least I know it exists and will “be prepared” when I get push-back from some type-A parent who doesn’t think his son should to be forced to include two-deep leadership in his Eagle project plan. (Max Wells)

The one policy area where local councils are permitted to exceed BSA standards is risk management. As a consequence, if your (or any) council wishes to mandate “two-deep leadership” (or any similar safety-related policy) for all Eagle Scout service projects, regardless of nature, location, etc., you’re permitted to do this.

Personally, I think this is a very good thing when a project is tree-topping in a mountainous region with no access roads, for which rappelling to the crest of a cliff to clamber up the treetops with gas-powered chain saws will be necessary. However, when the project is a book drive for a local library, with Scouts and other helpers stationed in front of local supermarkets and other public drop-off points, having two adults, one of whom must be registered and trained, etc., at each local venue, might…just might…be considered a bit over the top. Perhaps the most equitable solution is to review each project proposal on its own merits, rather than attempting to make blanket rulings on such issues. It problem I see with arbitrarily “stacking adults” is you often end up fulfilling my Rule #83: A boy kept from making mistakes is likely to be kept from making anything else.
Dear Andy,

I’m a Venture Patrol Leader. A while ago, I pitched the idea for a patrol camping trip, but was turned down by the troop’s adults. I’ve recently learned that the requirements have changed for patrol camping. What are the rules, and how can I convince our troop’s adult to let me try to do a patrol camping trip? (Scout’s Name Withheld, Patriots’ Path Council, NJ)

You didn’t tell me why you got the turn-down, but I’m going to guess: You hadn’t included two adults along on the trip, one of whom needs to be a registered leader in the troop. For a day hike (without making it an “overnight”), no prob: You all can go on your own, with a little “refresher” on safe hiking, Buddy System, and so on (exactly the same stuff you all learned about when earning your Tenderfoot, Second Class, and First Class ranks). But overnights require two adults along. That said, those adults don’t necessarily have to hike and camp right alongside your patrol—they can be out of sight but within earshot). Check the online version of the BSA’s GUIDE TO SAFE SCOUTING.
Dear Andy,

I’m Scoutmaster of a small (13 Scouts) Boy Scout troop. When I took over this position four years ago, I really expected to stay on for years and years. We worked hard to turn the troop around from one in which merit badges were taught at every meeting and the Scoutmaster decided where the troop goes hiking and camping. Now we have a Patrol Leaders Council and the Scouts plan and run their meetings, and have annual planning conferences to set the troop’s agenda for the year. I’m very proud to watch the troop run the way it’s supposed to. However, within the last year or so I’ve been getting burned out. Between work, Scouting, and home, I don’t seem to have time for anything else and, frankly, I’m just not having fun anymore.

I told our troop committee six months ago that I’d be stepping down at the end of the year and we needed to find another Scoutmaster. The Committee Chair has been begging for volunteers, but no one will step up. My Assistant SM is so overloaded with personal and work responsibilities that he can’t step up. No other parents are willing to do anything on the committee, let alone become Scoutmaster. We have had a hard time filling positions on the committee and at times I’ve had to threaten to cancel troop camping trips if another adult won’t go. Frankly, I’m at my wits end. The Committee Chair and I have discussed this with our district folks, but there’s not much they can do. They did come to a committee meeting and explain that the troop may fold if no one steps up, but this didn’t seem to bother the parents. Our Chair and I have talked about just shutting the troop down in the fall, but I’ve put too much time and effort into turning this troop back to True North to simply watch it fold. The troop’s been around for over 25 years and I really don’t want to be the last Scoutmaster; I’d feel like a failure if that happened, but I simply can’t keep doing this. I think you said something once that if you’re not having fun you need to walk away. Well, I’m not having fun anymore, but no one else will grab the baton. What do I do? (Name & Council Withheld)

Your question is: What do I do? The answer: You resign. Then you move on… find something else in Scouting you’d like to do, and do it. Maybe it’s being a Merit Badge Counselor. Maybe it’s serving on the district committee in some capacity. Maybe it’s becoming a Commissioner, so you can guide and support other troops, but without the time- and energy-consumption factors that weigh so heavily on “front-line” Scoutmasters. But make no mistake: You do need to resign.

Do this by providing a specific date that will be your last troop meeting. Inform the troop committee, all parents, and by all means the Scouts themselves, in advance. Attend that meeting with small mementos you’d like key volunteers (e.g., any ASMs and/or your Committee Chair, or others) and significant Scouts (e.g., the Senior Patrol Leader you’ve been training) to remember you by. Give everyone a solid Scout handshake, then salute the troop and wish them fair winds and following seas. Do this with honor, with grace, and with style! Make your last memory with the troop one of good cheer, good fellowship, and good Scouting!

(In the meanwhile, show this to your troop’s Committee Chair and suggest that he write to me. I may be able to help him formulate an action plan for identifying and recruiting the next Scoutmaster, building the committee, and keeping this troop alive.)

Happy Scouting!


Have a question? Facing a dilemma? Wondering where to find a BSA policy or guideline? Write to Please include your name and council. (If you’d prefer to be anonymous, if published, let me know and that’s what we’ll do.)

[No. 323 – 8/1/2012 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2012]


About AskAndy

Andy is a Board Member of the U.S. Scouting Service Project, Inc.

Andy has just received notification by his council Scout Executive that he is to be recognized as a National Distinguished Eagle Scout. He is currently serving as a Unit Commissioner and his council's International Representative. He has previously served in a number of other Scouting roles including Assistant Council Commissioner, Cubmaster, Scoutmaster, Den Leader, and--as a Scout--Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, and Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. His awards include: Kashafa Iraqi Scouting Service Award, Distinguished Commissioner, Doctor of Commissioner Science, International Scouter Award, District Award of Merit (2), Scoutmaster Award of Merit, Scouter's Key (3), Daniel Carter Beard Masonic Scouter Award, Cliff Dochterman Rotarian Scouter Award, James E. West Fellow (2), Wood Badge & Sea Badge, and Eagle Scout & Explorer Silver Award.

Read Andy's full biography

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