The Transatlantic Council’s Horizon District is one of the newest districts in the BSA. It’s also by far the biggest, stretching from South Africa to Saudi Arabia and from Rwanda to Russia.
District chairman Steve Sutton and district commissioner Mark Slusher are working to strengthen the district, whose units were previously served by the old Direct Service Council. Scoutingcaught up with them via Zoom to learn more about BSA Scouting far beyond the USA.
The two Scouters took very different paths to their current positions.
Sutton grew up in the United Kingdom, where he joined the program at age 8. He became a Queen’s Scout — the U.K. equivalent of an Eagle Scout — as a teenager and has stayed involved in the U.K. Scout Association ever since. (He currently serves on its executive committee.)
Over the years, he interacted with the BSA in several ways — serving on a National Jamboree staff, for example — and gradually got more involved with American Scouting.
Slusher was a Cub Scout in Springdale, Ohio, but fell away from the program until his son joined a pack in Spring, Texas. He served in several pack and troop roles before becoming a unit commissioner.
Work took both men to the Middle East. About a year ago, assistant Scout executive John Erskine, who is based in Brussels, Belgium, recruited them to lead the sprawling 5-year old district.
Years as a Scouting Volunteer: 39 years
Current City: Manama, Bahrain
Current Positions: District chairman, Horizon District; mate, Sea Scout Ship 802; member, Transatlantic Council International Committee; member, UK Scout Association
Day Job: General manager for a construction services company
Most Satisfying Moment in Scouting: “Attending the Queen’s Scout Award review at Windsor Castle with a member of the Royal Family and my parents present, followed by a service in the Royal Chapel at Windsor, where I joined other Queen’s Scouts seated on the Knights Chairs.”
Favorite Camp and Why: Gilwell Park, London, England. “I first attended to complete my commissioners residential Wood Badge course and have visited dozens of times since for camps and service and reunions. An amazing site with an even more amazing history.”
Years as a Scouting Volunteer: 13 years
Current City: Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
Current Positions: District commissioner, Horizon District; Merit badge counselor
Day Job: Technical writer and editor, Saudi Aramco
Most Satisfying Moments in Scouting: “I would say my son’s Eagle court of honor, but we haven’t held it yet because I’ve been in lockdown since March 2020. I’m really proud of his accomplishment because he did something I didn’t. Also, the plethora of Eagle Scouts from a wide array of nationalities, ethnicities and faiths we’ve helped advance in rank.”
Favorite Camp and Why: The former El Rancho Cima, Wimberly, Texas, “The wildlife was outstanding. While I was hiking early one morning to prepare the range, a covey of what appeared to be 30 Rio Grande turkeys scurried about 30 yards in front of my trail and loitered for about five minutes. Deer were abundant on every trip to the camp as well.”
Describe Horizon District for our readers.
Slusher: We have a very big piece of ground: 12 time zones, two continents and 50 countries. We’re just scratching the surface on covering them. When you think about our constituency, we are composed of Department of Defense families and State Department families — we’re talking U.S. nationals — and a whole bunch of oil and gas people.
Sutton: The demographics of Scouting in Horizon District are predominantly different from the United States. Generally, adults coming out are professionals, technical or highly skilled often, or military. Generally, if children come with them, they’re a family unit, so single-parent families are less likely. Unemployed families are almost unknown because ultimately if you lose your job, you head back to the States. When I’ve organized activities in the past and said, “Hey, you have to fly to your camp,” 99% of the time it’s not an issue.
What does the program look like in the district?
Slusher: We do not have programs like in the Sam Houston Area Council, which I’m familiar with. We don’t have Scout Days, we don’t have Fun with Son, we don’t have Webelos in the Woods, we don’t have a council camp nearby. With the geography we serve and border restrictions, units have to have their own resources, their own people. They can’t bring in people, district personnel, to help support them. They do their own merit badge stuff with principally their own people they have recruited. Scouting still goes on and we do the traditional activities other packs and troops do in the United States, but they often have to do it by themselves. I guess the silver lining to this COVID-19 disaster is that merit badge stuff is becoming more virtual and more Scouts get to interact with others.
Sutton: In 2021 we hope to have our first district activities where we have a jamboree-type event or district competitions — things where people could start to come together. It’s going to be hard because ultimately our physical area means one has got to travel a long way. But we actually have a core of membership in and around the Middle East, which gives a critical mass.
Do personnel rotations cause problems for units?
Slusher: Yes. In the military the typical tour of duty is a two-year cycle. We sometimes see three years in State Department families. The oil and gas industry can vary. It rises and falls depending on the price per barrel, and it always has. So, as the price of a barrel goes up, the population in Scouting goes up. When the price per barrel goes down, the Scouting population goes down. Units are constantly changing their leadership. However, one benefit of all this is people want to be involved in Scouting and use it to explore their new home away from home.
Sutton: We had one unit where the Scoutmaster was a senior officer and all the ASMs were Delta Force guys or in the SEALs. The Scoutmaster rotated out to Washington to some advisory post, and as soon as he went, his whole team dissolved away. That happens time and time again.
Do your Scouts have more awareness of world Scouting than Scouts back home?
Slusher: The international exposure is just 20 times stronger here, and there are opportunities to interact more with other cultures and with people from all around the world. Our roundtable commissioner up in the country of Georgia is developing relationships with the Georgian Scouts, which could be very beneficial to us as a district because it’s a very temperate climate that might make for some very good summer camp opportunities that we do not have right now. We can’t camp in summer here in Saudi Arabia. Our packs and troops are made up of Americans and other nationalities assigned to the area for work. It’s very diverse.
Sutton: As far as international cooperation and activity, I have organized at least three camps, probably more, where BSA and British Scouts overseas have camped together, mainly in the United Arab Emirates. Some Omani Scouts were also present at camp. Unfortunately, in the year or so Mark and I have been in our roles and started thinking about this, COVID-19 turned up. We’re having a lot of conversations, but it’s not like we can get out there right now.