As a young man, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald was afraid of the water.
“When I was young, I almost drowned,” he said. “So I was really fearful of the water despite all of the efforts my parents took to help me learn how to swim.”
On Thursday, McDonald told the BSA’s Report to the Nation delegates that his fear of the water held him back from earning the Eagle Scout award. He was a Cub Scout and Boy Scout, and his parents were his Scout leaders. But the water proved too big a hurdle.
This fear could’ve held McDonald back in life, as well. But he overcame it because he wanted to fulfill a childhood dream of attending the U.S. Military Academy.
“To go to West Point, you have to be able to swim,” he told the Scouts, Venturer and Explorer. “So I overcame my fear of swimming because I had a bigger goal in mind.”
He graduated from West Point in the top 2 percent of his class and served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, eventually becoming a captain.
But by then, of course, it was too late to earn Scouting’s highest honor.
“Unfortunately, I was over 18 years old, so I couldn’t go back and get Eagle Scout,” he said.
McDonald encouraged his son to complete what he did not. Sure enough, McDonald’s son is an Eagle Scout and Silver Beaver Award recipient who is now a volunteer in the Dan Beard Council, headquartered in Cincinnati.
McDonald’s time in Scouting — both as a boy and as an adult volunteer — has shown him what Scouting can do for our country.
“Boy Scouts is a great organization,” he said. “It’s near and dear to my heart.”
After a career at Procter & Gamble, during which he spent time in Japan and was a member of the BSA’s Far East Council, McDonald was tapped to lead the VA. He quickly accepted and was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 97 to 0.
McDonald told the Scouts that the VA is on the forefront of medical research “that not only benefits veterans but benefits the American public.”
VA researchers figured out that taking an aspirin a day can ward off heart disease. The first liver and kidney transplants were performed at VA hospitals. The VA developed the first shingles vaccine and first electronic medical record.
These days, the department devotes significant amounts of time and money to creating better prosthetic devices for wounded soldiers — technology that will no doubt benefit civilians as well.
2015 Report to the Nation
Photos by Michael Roytek and Randy Piland