Veterans Affairs secretary, whose son is an Eagle Scout, shares why he never earned Eagle

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

Read more coverage from the 2015 Report to the Nation, happening Feb. 27 to March 3, 2016, right here. And see more photos here.

Photos by Michael Roytek and Randy Piland


    • Not sure what point you were trying to make, Mike. Sec. McDonald was born in 1953, and when he was a scout, both the swimming and lifesaving MB’s were required for Eagle. For non-swimmers, new paths opened with optional MB’s beginning in the advancement changes of 1972. McDonald would have been 19 years old. So yes, McDonald would have had to have been a swimmer to reach Eagle.

  1. All Eagle Scouts can swim. A scout who can not swim will never achieve Eagle Scout nor several other ranks. A First Class requirement may be narrowly viewed as just a First Class requirement but it is still indirectly a requirement for all of the higher ranks because if a scout can not complete even one requirement at any given rank he is essentially boxed out from any further advancement. To most people an Eagle Scout represents the total sum of everything he completed, achieved, and earned during his time in scouting not just the last set of requirements for the Eagle Scout rank.

    • With all due respect, your statements are false. With proper procedures and certain criteria met, rank requirements may be modified with approval. While merit badge requirements MAY NOT be modified, substitute merit badges may be authorized, again, if proper procedures are followed and certain criteria met.

      • Hi Joe!

        I hope most people understood my comments were intended to refer to average scouts with normal abilities, the requirements they would need to complete to earn Eagle Scout, and within that context I stand by my statements as factual.

        Those scouts who have physical or intellectual disabilities are not as easy to discuss in terms of which requirements may apply or may need to be modified since there is such a wide range of factors that must be individually considered, evaluated, tailored to the specific needs of that scout, and receive approval.

        In terms of the Secretary it sounds like he was a fairly normal scout. By his own statements he did not learn how to swim while in scouting yet ultimately he was motivation to learn how to swim based on his desire to be admitted to West Point.

        Over the years I’ve met hundreds of men like the Secretary. Most often they approach while we are traveling on a weekend outing and stopping for a fuel or meal break and come up to tell us they were in scouts in their youth. Nine times out of ten they then go on to say they only made it as far as “X” and regret not sticking with it and achieving Eagle Scout. Hundreds of grown men who live with life-long regret about not having earned Eagle Scout and that is just the ones I’ve met. It does make for some interesting conversation for the next couple of hours as we continue on to our next destination and gives the scouts something to reflect upon in terms of their own aspirations.

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