BSA reinstates Heroism Award, one of three national-level lifesaving awards

From left: Heroism Award, Honor Medal, Honor Medal With Crossed Palms.

The Boy Scouts of America has reinstated the Heroism Award, filling a gap between the Honor Medal, presented for attempting to save a life with “considerable risk to self” and the Medal of Merit, which honors Scouting service but does not require a lifesaving attempt.

The Heroism Award was first presented in 1977 and discontinued in late 2012. Its official reinstatement came after a vote by the National Executive Board in February 2018. The award honors youth members or adult leaders who demonstrate “heroism and skill in saving or attempting to save a life at minimal personal risk.”

Councils nominate their members using this application and send the proper documentation to the National Court of Honor for final approval.

Heroism Award recipients — then and now — receive a red square knot on a white background and a medal with a red-white-red ribbon that says “For Heroism.”

To learn more, I spoke with one of the volunteers on the National Court of Honor. This is the national committee responsible for reviewing the nominations and determining which award, if any, to approve.

Like all members of the National Court of Honor, this person remains anonymous to preserve impartiality.

The Heroism Award medal and square knot.

The BSA’s Lifesaving and Meritorious Action Awards

The BSA has five awards to recognize members who attempt to save someone’s life or show extraordinary use of Scouting skills in a difficult or interesting situation.

There are three lifesaving awards. For these, councils submit a nomination to the National Court of Honor, which has the final say.

The awards are:

  • Honor Medal with Crossed Palms: awarded in exceptional cases to a youth member or adult leader who has demonstrated unusual heroism and extraordinary skill or resourcefulness in saving or attempting to save life at extreme risk to self.
  • Honor Medal: awarded to a youth member or adult leader who has demonstrated unusual heroism and skill in saving or attempting to save life at considerable risk to self.
  • Heroism Award: awarded to a youth member or adult leader who has demonstrated heroism and skill in saving or attempting to save life at minimal personal risk.

There are two meritorious action awards.

These awards can be presented directly by the local council. They recognize individuals who show that “a significant or outstanding act of service, of an exceptional character, was performed.”

There’s no requirement of a lifesaving attempt — merely that the person put into practice Scouting skills or ideals.

The awards are:

  • Medal of Merit: awarded to a youth member or adult leader who has performed an act of service of a rare or exceptional character that reflects an uncommon degree of concern for the well-being of others.
  • National Certificate of Merit: awarded to a youth member or adult leader who has performed a significant act of service that is deserving of special national recognition.

Why the Heroism Award was reinstated

Consider the list of awards above without the Heroism Award. You might notice a gap exists between the Medal of Merit and the Honor Medal. How can the BSA recognize someone who saves a life without risking his or her own? Perhaps the person performed lifesaving CPR. Maybe he or she stood on a riverbank and skillfully executed a throw bag rescue in Class III rapids.

“We found we were getting almost two out of three nominations where there was some risk to the person, but not, quote, ‘significant risk,'” the National Court of Honor member told me. “There’s a gap here, and that’s the reason there was a Heroism Award.”

The discontinuation of the Heroism Award was meant to simplify the process and eliminate “unnecessarily overlapping.” But in doing so it left that gap.

The National Court of Honor member told me that the volunteers approached the BSA about reinstating the award, and the BSA agreed to take a careful look. After that consideration, the reinstatement was approved in February 2018.

Even with the reinstatement of the Heroism Award, the nominating process remains unchanged.

The burden first is on the local council, which determines whether to make a nomination to the National Court of Honor. If the action being considered is deserving of merit but does not qualify for one of the three lifesaving awards, the council has the power to award either the Medal of Merit or National Certificate of Merit with consulting the National Court of Honor.

For lifesaving awards, the council uses this form. That triggers a review by the seasoned volunteers on the National Court of Honor. They can select one of the three lifesaving awards or choose to decline and send the request back to the local council.

“We take it very seriously,” the volunteer told me. “We give every nomination very careful review. We want to make the best decision possible given the circumstances of each situation.”

What about Scouts in Action and Scouters in Action?

Scouts in Action, the popular page in Boys’ Life that turns stories of heroism into inspiring comics, pulls its stories from National Court of Honor award recipients. As such, there is no process for submitting stories directly to BL. Boys’ Life waits until the award determination before selecting stories to turn into comics.

Scouters in Action is the Scouting magazine column modeled after Scouts in Action. Instead of youth, it recognizes adults who earn a lifesaving award. Scouting magazine uses the same process for selecting subjects.

Whom to contact for more info

If you have questions or need further information, you can email Awards@scouting.org.