What will the next generation of American leaders look like? Many of them will look like Eagle Scouts. And many of those already are shaping the future of America—and the world. They’re serving in the military, the Peace Corps, and Teach for America. They’re conserving natural resources, healing the sick, and competing for Super Bowl titles. They’re everywhere, and they’re serving others.
Eagle Scout Alvin Townley, author of the acclaimedLegacy of Honor (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), tells their compelling stories in his new book titled Spirit of Adventure: Eagle Scouts and the Making of America’s Future (St. Martin’s Press, May 2009).
In writing the book, Townley journeyed to exciting locales on five continents, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon, and the West African nation of Benin to speak with these young men about their extraordinary experiences, adventures, and missions.
In this exclusive Scouting magazine feature, excerpted and edited from Spirit of Adventure, Townley writes about two Eagle Scouts who fill their lives with purpose and intent—not to mention danger and excitement.
After Iraqis shot down Ron Young’s helicopter in hostile territory, he spent 23 harrowing days in captivity before being rescued. To get his story, Townley caught up with this veteran adventurer for a run on a wooded trail along Georgia’s Chattahoochee River and learned that the young soldier never abandoned the values he’d learned in Scouting.
Perched in the front seat of his Apache Longbow attack helicopter, Ron Young flew north into Iraq. It was March 23, 2003, two days after the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Silver light from the Arabian moon illuminated the suburbs surrounding the town of Karbala and painted the landscape with the shadows of 18 American helicopters, which were skimming treetops and pounding homes and fields with the downwash from their rotors.
As the helicopters flew farther north, red tracers from Iraqi antiaircraft installations began streaking upward, sporadically at first. Then everything changed. “All of a sudden, all hell broke loose,” Ron explained. “I don’t know how else to describe it; just a wall of lead. [It] didn’t let up for 25 solid minutes.” A bullet finally punched into the fuselage, and the Apache lost its weapons system. Ron continued to guide Dave Williams, the back-seat pilot, through the maze of tracers as best he could. “I’m screaming at Dave, ‘Turn left, turn left! Okay, turn right, turn right!’” the 26-year-old combat rookie remembered.
“All this time,” Ron continued, “the Iraqis are getting better and better. Bullets are getting closer and closer. I’m still yelling at [Dave], ‘Faster, faster, lower, lower!’ All of a sudden these tracers come up to us, and the aircraft shakes, shudders, yaws to the left, and leans back. I said, ‘Dave, what are you doing? Don’t slow down!’ He screamed at me that we lost an engine. I start smelling smoke and powder. Dave screams out, ‘They got me in the foot!’ At that point, I pretty much knew we were going down.”
Their Apache slammed its tail into the field below, and then its nose came crashing down, mercifully leaving the aircraft upright. The two crewmembers scrambled out of the cockpit and started running. “We’re pilots and we’re on the ground,” Ron explained. “That’s a baaad situation! We probably ran 20 feet and Dave screams, ‘My foot, my foot!’ Dave’s 5 feet 9 inches; I’m 6 feet 4 inches, and I grab him by his vest and start screaming at him and tried to instill the same fear of God in him that I’ve got in me. There ain’t no ‘I can’t run’ at this point!”
The two pilots sprinted through the chaos around them and dove into a ditch as an American jet laid bombs into a tree line close by. Shooting and explosions were everywhere as Iraqi forces aimed up at American aircraft, and the aircraft rained ordnance down at the ground. The two fugitives hurtled through fields and waded across irrigation ditches, trying to put distance between themselves and the search parties forming at their disabled helicopter.
“Finally,” Ron said, “I heard something and hit the ground and looked up and saw a bunch of Iraqis moving toward us. I’ve got this 9 millimeter pistol, and I remember thinking that I didn’t want Dave to be mad at me for getting him killed. ‘What do you want to do Dave,’ I asked. ‘Want to take off running, want me to start shooting, or want to give ourselves up?’ They’ll kill us if we start running, I have 15 pistol rounds against an Iraqi patrol with AK-47s, so I really couldn’t work with that, and we felt the only way to live through it was to give ourselves up.”
Minutes later the [Iraqi] patrol reached the downed aviators. A boot connected with Ron’s head, and he blacked out. When he came to, he found himself bound, lying on the ground, and looking at Dave. A soldier had pulled Dave’s head back by the hair and had a knife pressed against his throat. Ron instantly understood what they were facing.
The patrol dragged their bound captives from one house to another, trying to avoid the bombings. The treatment was rough, and the interrogations sometimes brutal. The Iraqi troops were scared and angry. Regardless of what decisions had been made to cause the war, the reality was this: Their hometown was under attack. American bombs endangered their families, their homes, their businesses, and their lives. The two airmen they had captured had been dropping those bombs.
To make them even angrier, the bombing became more intense over the next week. “Finally, I was thinking this is it—the real it. Being in the cell after getting interrogated, realizing we’re getting close to these guys just executing us and walking away. Every day the bombing was getting worse and worse. Everything was going up around us.”
Fortunately for Ron, death never came, although he spent each day thinking [that] he wouldn’t see the next sunrise.
As we took a break from our run, I asked him, “Really, did you think you’d make it out [of Iraq] alive?
“Oh, no,” he said without hesitating. “I was just hoping it’d be quick.
“You know a lot of people would think that it was enough adventure for anybody for a lifetime,” I commented, looking out at the river, knowing full well that Ron has only picked up his pace since returning from Iraq.
“No, what you find is exactly the opposite,” Ron said, giving [his Labrador] Mabry an appreciated rub behind the ears. “It’s like the same feeling I get just before I go head-first over the handlebars on my mountain bike!”
“I always had that streak where I had to have something to keep the adrenaline going,” he explained, remembering his days in Scouting. “From the time I was young, I really saw my life being about the quality of experiences I’d have. The only things you’ll always carry are experiences, so you always need to challenge yourself.
“When I was in China [as a student], I felt like I was alive. When I was on the river [as a rafting guide] I felt like I was alive. When I studied engineering, I felt like I was alive because I was achieving something and pushing myself forward. That’s an Eagle Scout trait, I think, wanting to be alive like that.”
Ron’s experiences in Scouting had shown him what life could offer and reminded him how he wanted to live. “This’ll sound weird,” he said, “but I do things based on the questions: ‘Will my grandkids want to hear about this?’ ‘Will they be intrigued by this person who is their grandfather?’”
(Read more about Ron’s adventures at home and abroad in Spirit of Adventure.)
As Townley and Ron neared the end of their run along the river, Ron reflected on his ordeal and the challenges faced by his fellow soldiers, including a friend who lost his life in combat.
“There are a lot of people in our armed services that are willing to make those kinds of sacrifices on behalf of people who will never even know or understand the sacrifices people make for them on a daily basis. And the reason they do that is because they grew up with certain values, like what we take from the Scout Oath and Scout Law.”
Ron almost didn’t live to see the age of 26, so he is one of those rare people who truly appreciate each day. Townley found his story and appreciation for Scouting particularly important, and saw those values echoed in many other Eagle Scouts. One was Burton Roberts.
For the seventh season of “Survivor,” the hit CBS show’s producers selected Burton Roberts from 40,000 applicants to live on Panama’s Pearl Islands. There, 20 million viewers watched him improvise and persevere against 15 other competitors. Roberts would spend 36 days living like a castaway, trying to “outwit, outplay, and outlast” his fellow contestants for a $1 million prize. Here, Townley hikes and talks with Roberts about how Scouting forged his resilience and his desire to compete.
I hike fast. I always have, probably due to some combination of innumerable cross-country races and competitions with other Scouts as we hiked the Appalachian Trail on countless weekends. For a while, it had seemed I was as familiar with the trail up North Georgia’s Blood Mountain as my own street in Atlanta. I learned to appreciate the view from the front on those hikes, and consequently I’m not accustomed to looking at someone else’s boots pounding the trail ahead of me. One mile into a trail several hours north of the Navy SEAL base in Coronado, however, the heels of Burton Roberts’ Salomons were seared into my eyes.
Weeks of travel had siphoned away time for staying in shape, and I wanted to see if my muscles had atrophied beyond recovery. In that sense, Burton served as an excellent test. He had a long list of triathlons under his belt and still traveled the world for mountaineering expeditions, cycling tours, dives, and hiking treks. Clearly, he was still in shape. The proving ground for my fitness would be the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles.
During our hike, I learned that Burton grew up on a Texas farm and then moved to St. Louis where he joined Troop 492. For him, Scouting provided a channel for his overabundant energy. The merit badges and system of ranks at Troop 492 became great motivators and expanded his horizons immensely.
“Our Scout troop pushed us to get out in nature which is so important these days because television, the Internet, and video games can engulf kids,” he said. “To me, getting outside is important because it gets you away from the monotony—or the craziness—of life. It gives you time to think, clear your head.”
In addition to getting him outside, Burton observed that Scouting gave him a vast array of skills that became lifelong interests. He discovered Scouting’s adventure in its expansive curriculum and its insistence that Scouts master skills in so many varied arenas: “That was such an amazing experience that so many people miss because they don’t have someone pushing this tremendous variety on them—camping, whitewater expeditions, merit badges of every kind.”
Burton’s résumé still lists Eagle Scout because he believes the rank defines him at a deep level. “You don’t have to get Eagle,” he explained, “but it encourages you to have that desire to reach the high levels and go after things throughout life, not settle and compromise on what you want to do. ‘Eagle Scout’ says here is a person who is not afraid, very motivated, willing to go out and do whatever it takes to get something done, and willing to take on adventure and challenges and not stop until the goal is reached.”
Burton stopped to negotiate a creek bed, and took a moment to listen to the quiet of the canyon.
Occasional breezes and scattered birds provided the only sounds other than our boots and conversation. The pause made him think. “You know, those skills and the love of acquiring those skills led me straight to ‘Survivor.’
“You have to understand that it’s a cut-throat game where unfortunately there’s backstabbing and manipulating,” he explained after we’d discussed his success in navigating the selection process. “You’re dealing with strategic game-play 24 hours a day, wondering who is in your alliance, who is lying to you, who is going to vote you off. Is my alliance together? Is Alvin lying to me? If he is, what should I do? That’s what kept me up at night.
“But beyond all that,” he continued, “[‘Survivor’] was living in the most pure environment you could. You had the resources there, and you couldn’t get anything else, so if you didn’t catch food for a day, you didn’t eat. I’d go swim around in our lagoon every day, partly to be out there spear fishing to get food, but really I just loved it.”
On “Survivor,” Burton might as well have been returning to a Scout expedition. Fires? He could start them. Shelters? He could build them. Spear fishing? He improvised—successfully. “It was amazing,” he said, “to see people who had no idea how to make a fire or keep a fire going. Or little things like knowing you have to boil water before you drink it. In one challenge, we had to tie sticks together to reach a certain key. No one else could very effectively lash sticks together, especially under pressure. But I’d done that countless times in Scouts.
“I could have done away with the mosquitoes and backstabbing,” Burton said as we resumed our hike on the far side of the creek, “but being outdoors and living on your own was really special. And the older you get, the less opportunity you have for things like that, and the less people do.”
“Survivor” represented one challenge, but Burton joked that 15 minutes of fame is an accurate phrase. He enjoyed every second of the show, and then applied that same spirit to other pursuits. At every chance, this graduate of Southern Methodist University and Northwestern’s prestigious Kellogg School of Management kayaks, scuba dives, snowboards, sky dives, skis, hikes, and competes in triathlons. He’d recently completed his fourth Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco Bay. He found a real challenge in the notoriously frigid water, and signed up for the Bay’s Shark Fest Swim, a 1.5-mile swim from Alcatraz Island to the mainland. He completed the event five times, once without a wetsuit. “Everyone told me it was probably the dumbest thing I’d done,” he said, “but I wanted to challenge myself and set a goal and did the best I could to prepare for the freezing water. Of course, I was cold for the rest of the day!”
Burton took adventure to a new level when he entered the legendary Eco-Challenge—an adventure race [that] covers more than 300 miles and has been televised on MTV, the Discovery Channel and as part of ESPN’s X Games. It would prove to be his most difficult test so far.
On the wild Pacific island of Fiji, Burton and several teammates competed with scores of others, racing through jungles from point to point and relying on their outdoor knowledge and survival instincts. (To learn the details and results of Burton’s amazing race, read Spirit of Adventure).
Burton led his rookie team across Fiji and learned to [again] value Scouting’s “Be Prepared” motto.
He explained that [being prepared] is not necessarily about having the right tools or equipment: “The more you’ve done, the more prepared you’ll be. It’s about pushing yourself and seeing where your breaking points are. Once you’ve gotten to that breaking point, you might want to back off, but you realize, ‘Okay, I’ve been there before.’ You know you can go beyond it.
“In racing, and in basically anything you do, experience makes the difference. Not experience in paddling or biking per se, but experience in attacking a challenge and overcoming it. That’s what I mean by ‘being prepared.’ ”