ScoutingNovember-December 2001

High-Tech Badges and High-Ideal Lives

By Cathleen Ann Steg

The annual merit badge weekend at the U.S. Naval Academy lets Scouts and midshipmen share good times and common values.

Where can you go to summon a genie from a bottle; experience the mysteries of wind, weather, magnets, and ocean tides; and spend the night around the campfire with 1,400 kindred spirits?

The 14th U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) Merit Badge Jamboree offered this and more to the Scouts and Scouters who attended the annual weekend camporee last January. While experiencing Academy life in the historic waterfront town of Annapolis, Md., Scouts from Florida to Connecticut could also earn a high-tech merit badge, like Chemistry, Fire Safety, Atomic Energy, or Oceanography.

Leading by example

But the merit badge program is only part of why troops vie for invitations to the camporee each year. Run by the USNA chapter of the National Eagle Scout Association (NESA), the weekend is an opportunity to watch a camporee staff of outstanding young Eagle Scout midshipmen in action.

Every detail, from program planning to parking logistics at the camping site at nearby Y.M.C.A. Camp Letts, is handled by Naval Academy NESA members, headed by Midshipman Second Class Jon Erskine, the camporee's commanding officer (CO).

"I didn't even have to be here all week for final preparations," admitted Professor John Ertel, the camporee staff faculty adviser, in noting how well the USNA Eagle Scouts performed their tasks.

Staff members are college-age young men, but they work together like an ideal "boy-led" Scout troop, setting an example they urge camporee troops to follow.

In a Friday night pep talk, CO Erskine asked Scoutmasters to "Please let the senior patrol leaders in the troop really lead this weekend, and you adults step back."

He then offered encouragement to senior patrol leaders facing new leadership challenges. "This will put a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, but I know you guys can handle it."

The staff faced its first big challenge before dawn on Saturday, getting all 1,400 campers motored 10 miles to the Academy grounds to hear the welcoming address by USNA Superintendent Vice Adm. John R. Ryan.

As the Scouts stood in the frozen courtyard at sunrise, Superintendent Ryan applauded them for their focus on training in leadership and service. "We're proud of what you do," he said. (c)

Teaching high-tech merit badges

Following the opening ceremony, Midshipman Second Class John Campbell, merit badge coordinator for the weekend, matched each Scout with an appropriate counselor. A majority of Scouts chose aviation, which featured state-of-the-art wind tunnel laboratories, but all 15 merit badge programs were well attended.

College teachers and midshipmen served as merit badge instructors, and their efforts involved significant preparation and commitment. For example, Midshipman Fourth Class Raj Mistry, teaching the Chemistry merit badge for the first time, knew first impressions would be key.

"I took BSA junior leader training and was a senior patrol leader in my troop in the Northern New Jersey Council, so I know how important it is to get Scouts' attention early," he said.

Special stunts help capture student interest, said retired Scranton University Professor Larry R. Sherman, an eight-year veteran adviser to the camporee's Chemistry merit badge program. "For example, they love it when we make the 'genie' come out of the bottle," referring to the exothermic reaction causing genie-like smoke to pour out of a glass bottle.

But there's more to earning merit badges here than playing with chemicals. "The work is not easy," emphasized Professor Sherman. "This is not a merit badge mill. If the boys haven't prepared and read their assigned books ahead of time, they're not going to pass. That says a lot about the quality of the program these young midshipmen run."

Top-notch classroom and laboratory facilities also help the Scouts complete merit badge requirements thoroughly. Tenth-grader Reid Gadziala of Troop 1104 of Clifton, Va., welcomed an opportunity to visit the rooftop observatory above his Astronomy merit badge session.

"I've been trying to complete my Astronomy merit badge for six months," he said. "Coming here was just what I needed to finish it up."

Adare Byrd of Troop 90 in Washington, D.C., praised the equipment available for the Fire Safety merit badge—fully equipped and staffed fire trucks from the Academy fire station. Adare even got to put out a training fire in the parking lot, using gear from the truck.

Midshipman Third Class Ryan Miller, camporee executive officer, said staff members would be available as long as possible to help every Scout complete his selected merit badge. "We can work even after the campfire Saturday night, if that's what you need," he announced, explaining that merit badge counselors wouldn't consider their job finished until no more Scouts came for help.

Scouts working on the Medicine merit badge used the availability of last-minute help to complete one of their toughest requirements: running a clinic. Counselor Midshipman First Class Luke McDonald, who would begin medical school in the fall, organized an evening blood pressure clinic for them. "They get to practice using the blood pressure cuff, and the Scoutmasters will be their patients, so everybody wins."

A weekend of shared values

The camporee featured much more than merit badge clinics. The Scouts were treated to a special silent drill performance by the Jolly Rogers, a USNA precision drill team. They ate Saturday lunch and dinner with midshipmen in the Naval Academy's King Hall, billed as "the world's largest dining hall." ("The food was the best I've ever eaten at any Scout event," enthused one Scout.) And some staff members camped overnight with the Scouts.

The close interaction with midshipmen is what really makes the merit badge weekend at the Naval Academy an extra-special experience for Scouts, said Lt. Sean Fahey, officer representative for the Academy's NESA chapter.

"They're not coming because we have good logistics or because we offer merit badges that are hard to get otherwise," he told staff at a pre-event planning session. "They're coming for one reason—to meet you guys. And what they'll remember most is the time they spend with you."

The camporee can generate greater interest in attending the Naval Academy, said CO Jon Erskine. But the weekend is more about demonstrating how Scouting and the Naval Academy share common values, such as cheerful service, willing leadership, and self-sacrifice.

The midshipmen provided examples of this whenever a merit badge instructor spent extra time helping a Scout, or when they maintained an all-night watch to keep the campfire burning—"just in case any young boy gets too cold," according to executive officer Ryan Miller.

Some Scouts tried to show the midshipmen how much they appreciated their efforts to make even the youngest Scouts feel they were very important participants in the weekend. At the end of the camporee, one of the youngest Scouts ran up to Lt. Fahey and shyly handed him a note, saying: "Please give this to that guy named Casey in the blue uniform. I just wanted to tell him thanks for eating lunch with me, and for ... well, just for being around."

To young men like Midshipman Third Class Casey Demunck—an Eagle Scout, Order of the Arrow Vigil Honor member, and Fire Safety merit badge counselor—the Naval Academy merit badge jamboree provided no higher accolade than having earned the respect of the Scouts they so willingly served.

Contributing editor Cathleen Ann Steg also writes about Venturing Crew 1433's celebration of the winter solstice in this issue.

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