By Rob McIlvaineJune 29, 2011
The Boy Scouts of America is the nation’s foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training. For 100 years, the award-winning Boys’ Life magazine has chronicled scouting’s commitment to give young Americans the tools, experiences and knowledge they need to make the world a better place.
Tyler “TJ” Ellwein and Jacob Netzel were among four Boy Scouts selected by Boys’ Life as finalists for the 2011 American Spirit Award. The award, presented by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, recognizes one or more individuals who demonstrate extraordinary skill, professionalism and a spirit of excellence in a challenging situation. Three of the four nominees, including Ellwein and Netzel, are Eagle Scouts. Ellwein and Netzel are also sons of Soldiers.
To earn Eagle Scout, a Boy Scout must progress through the scout ranks; earn 21 merit badges; serve six months in a troop leadership position; and plan, develop and lead a service project. Scouts must also take part in a scoutmaster conference and successfully complete an Eagle Scout board of review.
In 2010, only five percent of all Boy Scouts earned scouting’s highest advancement rank. Two of those young men charted their paths to Eagle by honoring military men and women.
For his service project, Ellwein, 19, from Troop 1437 in Davidsonville, Md., logged more than 400 hours leading the cleanup and beautification of Chaplains Hill at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Netzel, 17, from Troop 40 in Fayetteville, N.C., raised $40,000 over four years to construct a memorial for fallen members of the 3rd Special Forces Group, headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C., for his project.
Dedication runs deep in the Ellwein Family.
Until he was in the sixth grade, Tyler knew his parents as teachers in the Rapid City School District and as members of the South Dakota Army National Guard.
They were dedicated parents who, for one weekend every month and two weeks every summer, attended their drills and training. Not too unusual, until Sept. 11, 2001.
“After 9/11, my parents felt like they wanted to contribute in a much larger way, so they applied for Active Guard/Reserve positions in their respective fields. They were both selected, so in January of my sixth grade year (2004), we moved to Woodbridge, Va.,” Ellwein said.
The move was difficult for him because he had spent the first 12 years of his life in the same town, neighborhood, school and scout troop, and on the same sports teams.
“It was so difficult for me to adjust to something new, especially during the middle of the year. Even finding a Boy Scout troop was difficult, and I actually didn’t get involved with scouting until almost a year later,” he said.
His parents, both senior leaders, traveled a lot, but then his father received an assignment far enough away that after nine months of searching they were able to find a place halfway between their jobs.
“Then my dad was deployed to Iraq, twice, and that was really difficult because I worried about his safety every day,” Ellwein said, adding that many military kids grow up not knowing anything different.
“Military Families make extraordinary sacrifices to preserve the freedoms our country has grown to depend on. I didn’t realize that until I became a military kid.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my parents and what they do. They definitely were my inspiration for my Eagle Scout project.”
His mom is the sergeant major of the Chaplain Corps at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., and his dad is the commander of The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va.
“My dad was a Cub Scout so I started scouting when I was in the first grade. We also had a tradition, started by my grandfather. Every time I got promoted to a new rank, my dad handed down his Cub Scout scarf to me that he had worn when he was a little boy, which was handed down to him by his father. We’ve since handed down those scarves to my little brother, Austin, who is now a Webelos,” Ellwein said.
Although his dad only made it to Webelos in the Cub Scouts, Austin will receive TJ’s Eagle scarf when he becomes Eagle, too.
“During my Eagle ceremony, I put my Boy Scout bolo tie around his neck and challenged him to remain in scouting and I promised him that if he made it to Eagle, that I would be honored to pass my scarf on to him,” Ellwein said.
When TJ was little, he said he loved participating in all the activities scouting had to offer.
“I enjoyed being a scout because I could stay up in the wilderness all night with my friends, cooking our own meals with s’mores for dessert and then telling ghost stories around the campfire. The next day we went fishing and canoeing,” he said.
But as he got older, Ellwein found scouting more difficult because he was also involved in sports and other school activities.
“And being military, I didn’t get to stay with the same troop year after year. There were even times when I felt like quitting because I had been in three troops throughout my Boy Scout years.” Despite the challenges, Ellwein continued is scouting pursuits.
“I’ve always attended the Chaplain Corps anniversary celebrations on Chaplains Hill at Arlington National Cemetery and watched the chief of chaplains lay a wreath each year at the Tomb of the Unknowns,” Ellwein said.
In 2009, the Chaplain Corps celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Army Chaplain Assistant.
“My project on Chaplains Hill was done to commemorate that celebration. My mom is the senior enlisted advisor for ARNG affairs to the chief of chaplains, and she is the Chaplain Corps sergeant major and career field manager of the chaplain assistants at National Guard Bureau. She oversees the careers of some 850 chaplain assistants. This was a great way to honor her service, and also that of my father’s in Iraq,” he said.
The Chaplain Corps motto is to “Nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead.” Ellwein thought his project would be a great way to honor the dead. After all, the chaplain assistant would do anything for the chaplain to ensure they could provide ministry to Soldiers, and they would honor them until the day they died.
“My project was very symbolic of what a chaplain assistant would do for a chaplain. The work was very tedious"scrubbing bird droppings, algae, moss, precipitation and other dirty items"from 400 headstones, but it reminded me of what Jesus would do for his disciples. He washed their feet, which was a very humble act,” Ellwein said.
His friends gave up a weekend to wash the headstones of fallen heroes to honor the anniversary of the chaplain assistant.
“This was a great way for my friends to honor another generation of heroes, which we don’t often get an opportunity to do. When we were doing the project in preparation for Memorial Day and President (Barack) Obama’s inaugural Memorial Day address (which 75,000 visitors attended), many visitors stopped by and took pictures of us. They seemed amazed that 40 teenagers would be spending a beautiful Sunday afternoon scrubbing headstones,” he said.
He remembers one elderly veteran who had tears in his eyes as he shook his hand and thanked him for serving those who had served.
“I’ll never forget that. I got a lump in my throat, and tears welled in my eyes as well. It felt so good to be doing something for someone else.”
Between 4.5 and 5 million people visit Arlington each year, but there was no place to display the cemetery’s informational brochures. Ellwein designed and supervised the construction of two rotating oak racks that would hold 1,200 brochures. These brochure racks were dedicated at the visitor’s center on Veterans Day after Obama’s speech.
“Coincidently, my dad had just returned home from his second deployment to Iraq on Nov. 9 and was able to witness my dedication of the brochure display racks. It was a blessing to have him there. Both of my projects were dedicated on military observances"Memorial Day and Veterans Day. It made my project even more meaningful because I wanted to honor our military,” he said.
The Netzel Family, too, understands selfless service and sacrifice.
“I appreciate the numerous places I’ve been able to visit because of my father’s assignments,” Netzel said. I’ve lived in Germany, New York, South Carolina, Kansas, Oklahoma and North Carolina and have experienced so many things that shaped my perspective on life.
“But it was hard when I was younger. I would make good friends and then have to leave after only a few years,” he said.
Netzel said he participated in every organizational day that his father’s units hosted.
“I really enjoyed the festivities that each group provided. I also helped out each year with the Memorial Day wreath-laying ceremony,” Netzel said.
But it was scouting that kept him grounded.
“I got into scouting when I was six years old as a Tiger Cub and quickly grew to like it. But in my first years as a Boy Scout, the only thing that drove me was to get Eagle as early as possible. I knew it looked good on college resumes and I wanted to be a step above my peers.
“However, during my trail from the ranks of Life to Eagle, I realized that it wasn’t about me. Selfless service is what keeps our communities alive and thriving and I had to do my part,” he said.
Netzel enjoyed trying new things with his troop. To get himself motivated, he read articles in Boys’ Life about scouts canoeing 30 miles in a week, surviving off nothing but what they could carry.
“I want to challenge myself so I encouraged my fellow scouts to take more adventurous camping trips. We did a high adventure canoe trip during a summer camp where we had to use what we could carry for the whole week, and had to canoe miles from camp site to camp site,” he said.
That first trip taught the boys how to adapt and overcome when their campsite flooded and they had to work together to solve their dilemma. On their second wilderness survival trip, they could only use what they were able to carry with the added restriction of no tent"they had to make their own shelters from found materials.
His dad, Lt. Col. Thomas Netzel, is deputy commander of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, Fort Story, Va., near Virginia Beach. His mom is also affiliated with the military. She is a Department of Defense Education Activity 8th grade English teacher at Albritton Junior High School on Fort Bragg, N.C.
For Netzel, the path to Eagle started in April 2006, when he began tossing around ideas for an Eagle Scout project at home. At the time, his father was the resource management officer for 3rd Special Forces Group, and he had a suggestion.
“My dad said his group didn’t have a memorial to all the guys who had died in service. But they couldn’t do it within the group, and it would take a lot of work by someone to get it done. He told me to think long and hard before committing to it, because this was something that would be difficult but very special. A couple of weeks later, we sat down and I said, ‘I want to do this.’”
Jacob had another, more personal, reason to take on the project. A year earlier, his scoutmaster had been killed while deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan.
“I knew what I had to do to get my project done the minute my packet was approved by my troop’s district, and that’s when things became more complicated. The first challenge was to raise $40,000 for the memorial stones. I did everything imaginable in order to gain the necessary funds. I spent numerous eight-hour days in front of grocery stores collecting donations, went knocking on doors in neighborhoods and even talked to the Soldiers before their physical training exercises,” he said.
He learned a lot about people in the process, hearing some special stories along the way that touched him deeply.
“When I knocked on one door, a man in a wheelchair answered. He wrote a check for $100 on the spot as he told me he was a member of the very unit for which I was building the memorial walk.
“When an article was published in the newspaper telling people where they could send donations, a woman in her 80s sent me a check for $5 that arrived in my mailbox the same day the paper came out. She wrote a note telling me she was so moved about my project, she sent me all she could afford. She must have read the article early that morning and gotten the check in the mail immediately,” Netzel said.
After a long year, all the money needed to complete the project had been raised. But then the project hit a snag and was delayed further by a Supreme Court case that caused the military to put a moratorium on all gifted memorials.
“To overcome this, I had to seek approval (through) the chain of command as high as the secretary of the Army. But I completed my project Sept. 11, 2010. It was dedicated and gifted to the 3rd SFG, Dec. 10, 2010.
The end result was 28 headstones honoring the memories of 3rd SFG Soldiers killed while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Although neither Ellwein nor Netzel received the 2011 American Spirit Award, they said the fact that their Eagle projects will honor Soldiers and their Families for years to come is the real reward.
For more information, visit http://scouting.org/.