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WASHINGTON — He has served under eight U.S. presidents, including as chief of the Central Intelligence Agency and at the Pentagon. Now, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has agreed to take on a new challenge. Instead of marshalling troops, though, he will be making sure more than two-and-a-half million U.S. boys are prepared to face life.
There was plenty of fanfare when Gates stepped down as Secretary of Defense in June 2011, marking what seemed to be the end of a long public career.
Now, Gates will be stepping back onto the public stage, after agreeing to a two-year term as voluntary president of the Boy Scouts of America. Pending final approval, he is to start next May.
In a statement, Gates, a former scout himself, is quoted as saying, “There is no finer program for preparing American boys for citizenship and leadership.”
But just as when he took the helm at the Defense Department, in the midst of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates is coming to an organization facing major challenges.
The Boy Scouts have been hit with multiple lawsuits - including one alleging the organization, despite complaints, allowed suspected pedophiles to work with and abuse boys in the 1970s and 80s.
"We know that in Idaho alone, there were 15 different pedophiles, based on these documents," said Andrew Chasan, who represents the plaintiffs.
But perhaps no issue looms larger than the decision by the Boy Scouts this past May to allow openly gay scouts for the first time.
Outgoing Boy Scouts President Wayne Perry, said, “It's a very difficult decision for a lot of people. But we're moving forward together.”
Not everyone feels that way. Thousands of people rallied in opposition, some severing ties, even mailing back scout badges they had earned decades earlier.
"What they've done is they've slapped all of us in the face that have ever been involved in scouting," said Bill Bright, a former Boy Scout.
The issue though, is not at all unfamiliar to Gates, who oversaw the end of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays.
“You're supposed to go on treating everybody like you're supposed to be treating everybody now - with dignity, respect and discipline.”
But now, instead of facing troops, he’ll be facing more than 2.5 million Boy Scouts, ages seven to 21. And he will be charged with helping them live up to the organization’s famous motto - “be prepared.”