Holding out for a hero: How the BSA honors lifesavers

The Cub Scout 'Hero' Cape poster created by Martin Williams Advertising. Read more here: http://www.northernstarbsa.org/News.aspx?articleID=1361

This Cub Scout ‘Hero’ Cape poster created by Martin Williams Advertising was a real hit. Read more at this link.

Real heroes don’t wear flowing capes or iron suits or brightly colored tights.

More and more, it seems, they wear Scout uniforms.

Part of preparing boys for life means preparing boys to save lives if the unthinkable happens. And when a Scout or Scouter goes above and beyond in an attempt to save life, he or she is rewarded.

Enter the lifesaving awards (PDF). From 1977 to last year, there were three awards: the Heroism Award, Honor Medal, and Honor Medal with Crossed Palms. (There are also meritorious action awards for notable acts of service that don’t involve lifesaving attempts.)

The Honor Medal goes to a Scout or Scouter who attempts to save life at some risk to self, while the Honor Medal with Crossed Palms is for a lifesaving attempt with extreme risk. Extreme risk and extremely rare — only 277 Honor Medals with Crossed Palms have been awarded since 1938, roughly four per year.

The third award, the Heroism Award, is presented for lifesaving with “minimum risk to self.” And I learned this week that it’s been discontinued. Here’s how awards guru Bill Evans explained the change in an email to me today:

Just 14 Honor Medals with Crossed Palms were awarded in 2012.

Just 14 Honor Medals with Crossed Palms (seen above) were awarded in 2012. This is in addition to the 52 Honor Medals awarded last year.

Originally there were two lifesaving awards for those who demonstrated unusual heroism: (1) the Honor Medal for those using “skill or resourcefulness in saving or attempting to save life at considerable risk to self;” and (2) the Honor Medal with Crossed Palms, for those using “extraordinary skill or resourcefulness in saving or attempting to save life at extreme risk to self.”

In 1977 the National Court of Honor added a third award, now known as the Heroism Award, for “meritorious action.”

After a review of the history of the lifesaving awards, including the application and actual processing of these three awards since 1977, it is the opinion of the National Court of Honor that the Heroism Award, should be retired, and the language of the Honor Medal and the Honor Medal with Crossed Palms be amended for the following reasons: (1) the current language of the three awards is confusing and unnecessarily overlapping; (2) the desire to recognize appropriate acts of heroism can be accomplished effectively using only the Honor Medal and the Honor Medal with Crossed Palms; (3) The Medal of Merit has been traditionally awarded where there is no risk to self.

Thanks to Bill for clarifying.

And more importantly, thanks to all the Scouts and Scouters out there who show us all that true heroism isn’t found in comic books.

Well, unless you count “Scouts in Action” — one of my favorite Boys’ Life features!


Images from Gene Gable’s blog

35 thoughts on “Holding out for a hero: How the BSA honors lifesavers

  1. Bill Evans didn’t mention the “Certificate of Heroism” which was a National Court of Honor award for lifesaving with no risk. My understanding was that the Heroism Medal replaced the Certificate of Heroism so that those Scouts and leaders would have a medal also.

  2. Hey Neil!! I was one of those guys who received the Certificate of Heroism and later was upgraded to the Heroism Medal. It was a wonderful surprise!! I hate to see the award “retire”…I was proud then and now whether it came in a medal or certificate!!

      • Thank you Mary; but I think the action of shaking the marbles from the throat of my friend’s younger brother meant more to me…I just did what I thought would remove the marbles…it worked and he threw up all overmeas a result….

        My Scoutmaster put me in for the award after Tom (his older brother) told him about what I did. I didn’t know that I was even being considered for anything until after my Scoutmaster called me and told I was getting a lifesaving award from the Scouts. There was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes about it — stuff I didn’t know about until I was much older and understood what was going on at the time back then.

        My Scout Executive in my Council was proud, however, when I showed up and received the certificate from the Council… My parents did not attend much of my Scouting things when I was growing up because “you get so many Scouting things…” This was 1974 in Louisville…racial strife, court-ordered desegregation, and Vietnam drawing to a close.

        1974 was a big year for me…so many Scouting things happened to/for me. But the best part of the entire lifesaving thing was getting a kiss from Monica, Tom’s sister (I had a crush on her and was the reason why I was hanging out around their apartment that afternoon after school).

        But isn’t that what Scouts do, Mary?

  3. My son Robert William earned the Heroism award in 2006, at the age of 14, for saving another scout’s life after the canoe which they were in turned over. I’m indeed sadden that BSA has decided to “save money” and not continue this award. Which I believe is the main reason that National has decided to stop this award- not the reason which was stated.Only they won’t state it.
    This award actually helped my son achieve rank also while he was in his high school’s JROTC program. Not that he didn’t work his butt off for it either.
    Having been a business owner before and currently now the CEO of a small corporation I look for awards like this in applications when I hire people. It means alot and actually helps when the boy grows up and applies for college and jobs. So my question is if BSA is to help train and provide the boys with the best resources then why kill things which will help them in the future?

    • Hello Mary,
      I’m not sure how it’s a matter of saving money. The cost of a few medals isn’t that great. I believe that in any given year, about 250 people (youth plus adults) receive awards for Heroism of all levels and about another 150 receive Medals of Merit. So even assuming that the awards cost $20 each which would be huge, that’s only about $8,000 per year for all awards. The BSA isn’t going to make a move like this for a fraction of $8,000. Besides that, these youth and adults are still eligible for the Medal of Merit so there’s really no cost saving at all. I have to believe that the National Medal of Merit from the BSA would be as substantive in earning JROTC rank as would be the Heroism Award.

      I have participated in filling out application forms for these awards on a few occasions and for lifesaving or property saving with no risk to the rescuer, there has always been a hard to determine question of whether the application should be for the Heroism Award or the Medal of Merit. To me, this does make things cleaner as it means that “heroism” involves risk to the rescuer while using Scout skills and displaying “merit” without risk to the rescuer qualifies for the Medal of Merit, which is very, very significant award.

    • Hi Mary!!

      My first post got messed up, so I’m going to try this again…*smiling*

      As posted earlier by Byran and by Bill Evans, there will still be awards made for heroism…just that the Heroism Medal won’t be among the three awards for meritorious service or heroism.

      Among the things I wrote earlier Mary, was that before 1977, there were only three awards for heroism and meritorious service: the Honor Medal with Crossed Palms, the Honor Medal and the Merit Medal. Since the 20s, those were the only awards available. When I saved the life of the little brother of a friend of mine (and fellow Scout) in 1974, I received the Certificate of Heroism. I would agree, now as an adult, that what I did was not as “massive” as many of those accounts I read about in Boys’ Life magazine (Scouts in Action). My mom thought it wasn’t a big deal either, as much of my youth Scouting (and other) things kept in a box in the closet (because while living in military housing we were not really allowed to “put holes and hang your many Scout things” on the wall; and I would not need them because I was going to college!) was thrown away when my family moved to a larger home off-base.

      A few years later. I received the Heroism Medal and three of those small ‘square knot things’ by mail.

      I have no clue why my award was “upgraded”…I am blessed it was but just getting recognized for what I did to help the brother of a friend was good enough for me (plus I got a kiss from his sister, which was the real reason I was hanging around in the first place! *hehehehee*

      You should be proud of your son…and like my Eagle, his Heroism medal only “propped open the door”. The real test of personal character comes after your son and I (and others) proved ourselves to others we worked, went to school, and associated with. Future Scouts and Scouters will be able to earn the Merit Medal again for acts of heroism with little to no harm to themselves…just like before 1977; or they will be able to receive a Certificate of Merit from their local Councils.

      Again, like with the removal/renaming of some Cub Scout Awards; and with the retirement of awards we seldom do award any more (like the Spurgeon Award and the Exploring Acheivement Award and some others); the BSA is trying to place additional meaning to awards (and their associated “square knot insignia”) meant to inspire, recognize and provide personal and group accomphishment.

      (and my personal congrats to your son for his personal accomphishment!!)

  4. Just a thought, but I think it would be in the best interest of the BSA to take every opportunity to ceremoniously reward documented life saving acts to the extent possible. Each award presented in front of scouts and scouters and documented continues to promote the worth of Scouting to society.

    • Hey Steve!!

      The BSA does a great job in promoting folks who receive heroism and meritorious service awards. Do a Google search for”BSA heroism” and you should see a lotofreturns with links to stories about Scouts and Scouters who receive those awards.

      There are many, many others out there who do other acts of heroism or meritorious service who receive letters and/or certificates — and they too get recognized at Council annual dinners, Eagle dinners or special events like Council camporees.

      The bottom line is medal, certificate or letter — there are Scouts and Scouters out there who are “Prepared” and “help other people” and through their actions, have assisted many others out there — people who may not even know up to that point that they are Scouts or Scouters!!

    • Hello Steve,
      By and large, I believe that the BSA agrees with you. However, someone local has to know about the incident and complete the paperwork. Then it has to be approved by the Local Council advancement committee and finally there is approval by the National Court of Honor. The Court of Honor does pretty much take every opportunity to honor Scouts. However, every a large council might only have one or two of these awards per year and a small council could be only one every several years so there are very unusual for the Advancement Committee. I know of several cases where there was clearcut lifesaving by the Scout but the local Advancement Committee said “We don’t think it’s that special. That’s what Scouts are expected to do.” These are cases where the stories in Scouts in Action that show breathtaking rescues and heroism can actually work to the disadvantage of other Scouts who do a rescue and maybe even save a life but where it isn’t that outstandingly heroic.

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  6. We had a scout in our troop who we wre going to nominate for one of these awards. While we were on a canoe trip, the canoe he was paddling with a younger, tenderfoot, scout traveled a little to close to an approaching bank on one of the bends in the river. Correcting enough to avoid the bank, the canoe still floated beneath a tree’s low branches, which allowed a cottonmouth to fall at the feet of the young scout, who proceeded to scream like there was no tomorrow. Tim proceeded to get the attention of several leaders, myself included, and with the help of my son a new scout, we removed the frightened boy into our canoe. Tim then rowed the canoe to a shallow area, exited the canoe, and slowly tipoped it to allow the snake to swim away. He never lost his head. When I mentioned that I was going to submit his story, he asked us not to, saying it was not that big a deal. I was proud to sit on his Eagle BOR and witness the young man who was so unassuming recieve his Eagle. When we discussed it later and thought it would be something to place on the table with all of his momentos, we found we were too late. I think the time works in the wrong direction here.

  7. Scouting needs to PROMOTE these awards more …and not discontinue the awards simply because there is some “confusion” in the field….they should work to clear up the “confusion” thru better documentation and direction, rather than discontinue a valuable tool to recognize significant service in “Lifesaving” vs “Meritious Action”.
    Sometimes the scout office loses site of the larger picture that these type of awards are valuable in the local settings to raise the awareness of the BSA program locally and that there needs to be MORE (rather than less) recognition going on !

  8. I received the Heroism Award medal in 1997. That whole event is one of my most cherished memories of my teenage years. My award is framed on my wall next to the certificate. I, too, am sad to see the award be discontinued. However, one positive about this is that those who receive can share the experience with scouts for years to come, and show them a medal that is no longer available. How cool is that!

    By the way (and more importantly), the young girl that I rescued from a river has grown up to be a great person with a fulfilling life. She recently got married and it was an absolute amazing feeling to be at her wedding, knowing that the water rescue from years earlier was successful. Medal, no medal, either way…knowing that she was able to live and grow up and experience life has brought great joy to me.

    • Hello Rob,

      I believe your actions would still be eligible for a BSA medal. It would just be a different medal — the Medal of Merit.

  9. So, is there an actual medal for any of these? I was “awarded” the Medal of Merit and received a certificate in a dollar store frame. Pretty disappointing and tells me a lot about being a “valued” part of Scouting.

    • Hi Ben!!
      Yes, there are actual medals to honor those Scouts and Scouters who have saved a life or demonstrated Scouting’s best meritorous service to others.

      My short story is that in 1974 I saved the younger brother of a fellow Scout (and his sister, whom I had a liking for). For that action, I received a Certificate of Heroism and yes, it was in a “dollar store frame” (what did you expect — a gold gilted frame? It is not the packaging but the award itself…). Unfortuantely, that year I received a lot of other awards and certificates which I put away in a folder (my parents were not “hot” about me being in Scouts at that time, so things of mine were not hung in my room (we lived in military housing, and ever hole in the wall had to be patched and painted over before we turned the housing over to the next family…so you learn not to put holes in the walls!).

      When I left for college in 1977, my mom dumped out all of my “childhood things” which included my Scouting certificates, medals and other things…they are all in a landfill somewhere. Since then, I’ve received copies of some of the things from my local Council upon request and research; and other things I’ve been able to get from eBay more recently.

      In 1980, while I was home for a weekend, my Mom told me that I had a package from the Boy Scouts on my bed. I was surprised upon opening the package to receive a Heroism Medal and four red and white square knot pieces for my uniforms. I never received a certificate, because my assumption is that since I did get the earlier Certificate of Heroism, that would suffice as the medal’s certificate. I have worn my medal twice — it sits in a frame with some other Scouting awards in my parents’ living room alongside my brothers’ sports trophies and certificates.

      My Mom died nine years ago; my Dad joined her three years ago this summer.

      Yes, those awards do come with a medal — unfortunately, the Heroism Award medal is no longer being awarded (I’ve requested a duplicate medal but I have not received it) but the Merit Medal and the Honor Medal continues to be the two honors for Scouts and Scouters who go out of their way in “helping other people” under extreme circumstances. If you did not receive a medal, I would encourage you to contact your Council’s Scout Executive and ask them to secure a medal for you from the National Court of Honor.

      Again, whether the certificate comes in a “dollar store frame” like yours and mine (my was a plastic frame with a celephane window…), a “real certificate frame”, or in an padded envelope from the BSA’s National Office — it is NOT about the presentation but rather the BSA’s recognition of your exceptional service.

      (My Hornaday Award medal, also received in 1974, came in a padded envelope from the BSA’s National Conservation and Outdoor Programs office. My Mom thought it was “tacky for them to award such a big award in an envelope…” but I stopped her from complaining because earlier that year, my Dad got a medal from the Army in the same way…in an padded envelope. The old commander left and wanted to make sure that my Dad got the award — instead of it bouncing around from desk to desk and get lost in the shuffle. My Dad didn’t take offense — neither did I when my award was mailed….)

    • Hello Ben,

      These awards are pretty rare, so often, leaders become confused. There is an award called the “Local Council Certificate of Merit.” This is not a National Council award and has no medal attached to it. The local council can award it if they believe that the activity did not meet the standards of the Medal of Merit. So you may have been told that you received the “Medal of Merit” and what you actually received was the Local Council Certificate of Merit.

      Look at the certificate you received. If it does say “Medal of Merit” and you never received a medal, I would contact the National Council and the National Court of Honor. I do imagine they will try to make things right. You should also get the square knot for the Medal of Merit.

      Some awards don’t have a medal attached to them. When I received the District Award of Merit, there is no physical medal, only the certificate and the square knot. It came in a dime store frame. I was greatly honored and considered myself extremely fortunate. A Scout is, after all, supposed to be Thrifty and I’m not sure how spending money on a frame makes things more valuable.

      Similarly for the William D. Boyce New Unit Organizer Award. No medal.

      Congratulations on your lifesaving activity. Regardless of the award, it’s pretty special and you came through as a Scout.

      • The certificate says “Medal of Merit”. I contacted national and there is no medal. Ironic since there is a “Certificate of Merit”. For the District Award of Merit does not have a medal, but does have certificate, overhand knot, and plaque (nice plaque too). National should re-think the title of the award if it is call the “Medal of Merit”.

        • Hello Ben,

          I am exceedingly confused by the response you got. With respect to whomever you communicated with, they are simply incorrect.

          1) There IS a medal. I have seen it. In fact, I have had the honor of awarding it
          2) On the second link you listed which you indicated were sent from National, there is a photo of all of the Meritorious action medals including the Medal of Merit. Honest! There’s a picture of it there!

          If you do a Google search of “Boy Scouts Medal of Merit”, you’ll see lots of photos of it.

          So I wonder if you communicated with National Supply rather than with the National Court of Honor.

          May I suggest that you contact the National Council at 972-580-2000, ask to speak with someone from the National Court of Honor. When the person answers, ask if they are with the National Court of Honor. If so, then ask about the Medal of Merit. Tell then that you were awarded it and have the certificate but never got the actual medal. Ask what you should do.

  10. The link you provided above explains and shows the Medal for Merit (or the Merit Medal). It is not discontinued and you should do what Neil suggested — contact the National Court of Honor and ask to speak to someone regarding getting the medal.

  11. My son was awarded the Heroism Award in 2006. I’ve been reviewing the awards for recognition of another scout. I was disappointed to see BSA discontinue the Heroism Award. I believe it leaves a gap in recognition of scouts.

    My son saved an injured unconscious victim from the bottom of a swimming pool. He was awarded the Heroism Award because National felt that the rescue was with minimum risk to self, not with considerable risk to self. I understood and was glad he was recognized with the Heroism Award. With the Heroism Medal discontinued, he likely would have received the Medal of Merit, which is more appropriate for an act of service showing character and concern; I think it falls short in recognition of any rescue which involves any risk to the rescuer.

    I believe the wording of the Honor Medal might have been changed from “considerable risk to self” to “some risk to self”. which might help close the gap, especially if National recognizes the gap when considering scouts for these awards,

    Anyone know when adults began to be recognized for these awards? I recall that when my son received hos at Round Table, the District Advancement Chair noted that adult scouters would take special note of this knot on a uniform, knowing it was one of the few knots that could only be earned as a youth and could not be earned as an adult.

    • Hello Kurt,

      As Mike has said, I believe that your DAC is about 95% incorrect. The National Court of Honor recognitions certainly can be earned by adults. The only bit of correctness by your DAC is thatI believe that the standards for earning them are determined by the age and status of the recipient. So an activity that might get a Tiger Cub an Honor Medal or even Honor Medal with Crossed Palms might get an adult a warm handshake and a sincere “well done” and nothing more.

  12. Kurt, your District Advancement Chair was misinformed, as all three (two now) of the heroism and meritorious service awards have been available for adults to receive since, well, at least the 40s. It is not just a “youth award”, then or now. Like you, I am sorry that the Heroism Award has been discontinued…

  13. I did contact National Court of Honor at the National office. There is a medal. Local council is supposed to pay for the medal.

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