We waited for a good two hours in the blistering Washington, D.C., heat before we were allowed entry into the security checkpoints; and, after being cleared, found ourselves in the East Room, just outside the West Wing of the White House. Along with the other 97 delegates to the American Legion Boys Nation, I waited nervously, noting the art work and architecture in this famous room. Finally, we heard footsteps and that voice that we’d been waiting to hear for the entire week.
“Welcome everybody!” the president said.
Regardless of our personal political stances, at that moment all 98 Boys Nation delegates erupted in raucous cheering like we were at the Super Bowl. President
Obama addressed us all and made a point to shake hands with each of us. It definitely made an impact on me.
My journey to that point had started a month prior, when I left the American Legion Charles A. Conklin Post 28 here in Grand Haven at 6 a.m. — along with 28 other incoming seniors from the Tri-Cities area — for a week-long experience at Michigan Boys State. At Boys State, we were exposed to how government functions on a local and state level; filling in the roles of our elected officials in real life. Delegates were elected to and served positions ranging from city mayor to county prosecutor, all the way up to governor of Boys State. Almost 300 young men from around the state attended Boys State this year.
While everyone was encouraged to apply for Boys Nation, only two delegates from Michigan would be selected to go on to Washington. After a lengthy interview process with members of the American Legion, I was thrilled and honored to be named one of the delegates to represent Michigan.
Founded in 1947 and similar to Boys State, but with more emphasis on government at a national level, 2011 Boys Nation took place from July 22-29 on the campus of Marymount University in Arlington, Va. What made Boys Nation so incredible was just how intense the experience was. Ninety-eight young men from all over the country (two for every state except Hawaii) gathered here to serve as a mythical national government. Each delegate was referred to as “senator.”
At Boys Nation, the elected delegates debated the passage of bills exactly like Congress, using nearly identical procedures. We were responsible for bringing our own bill that could be passed into law.
The very same night after our meeting with the president, we elected our own president and vice president of Boys Nation.
Right from the start, there was a clear difference between Boys State and Boys Nation. Boys State was a wonderful experience because there were so many different roles that could be filled, so everyone had a specific job to play. At Boys Nation, there were fewer elected positions, making it far more intense and political. Because the issues we debated were issues that affected the nation as a whole, there was a greater sense of urgency to get things done, making it far more stressful.
Every day, we got up at around 6 a.m.; most nights not going to bed until close to midnight. It was almost as physically draining as football two-a-days!
By no means were we limited to just Marymount’s campus. Almost every day we got on a charter bus and made the 15-minute commute to D.C., where we toured some of the famous landmarks and memorials that give Washington its aura of national pride.
The Lincoln Memorial is massive. The Vietnam Memorial is an understated place of extraordinary emotion. The Washington Monument looks like it touches the clouds on a sunny day, which was quite often in D.C. that week. And some of the lesser-known monuments, like the Korean War Memorial, are just as powerful.
My personal favorite was the Iwo Jima Memorial, which is a recreation of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo in massive, sculptured form.
I guess the entire week we spent in D.C. can be described as a whirlwind insider tour and experience of the Capitol. Meeting the president would have been more than enough for anyone — but, along with that, we toured Arlington National Cemetery and as a group laid down a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
We were lucky enough to have a Holocaust survivor, Nesse Goden, speak to us — which was the most moving moment of the entire week for me. She had gone through something so horrible and yet remained a remarkably upbeat and optimistic person. That being said, there was no mistaking the determination in her voice when she told us to never forget what happened.
On the second to last day before we left, we went to Capitol Hill and spent the day meeting with our congressmen.
For the majority of the day, we lingered in the halls of power, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone important. In the end, we did. Some of the people myself and my colleagues saw included Sen. John Kerry, Speaker of the House John Boehner and former President George W. Bush.
My only disappointment of the whole week is that neither I nor the other Michigan delegate got to meet our U.S. senators from Michigan, who were busy with the debt ceiling crisis.
After coming home and having some time to reflect, I still can’t believe the incredible opportunity I was given. The American Legion deserves high praise for what they do and who they are. I can safely say that I have them to thank for helping me define a career path in law, and for giving me the opportunity to go to Boys State and Boys Nation.
I think that the best way I can say thanks is to say this: Boys State and Boys Nation are life-changing experiences. I can’t think of a week-long stretch in my life that was as powerful as Boys State, and I can’t think of a week-long stretch as memorable as Boys Nation. So, for any upcoming juniors in the Tri-Cities area who are invited to go to Boy State, I encourage you and I implore you to go. The reward is phenomenal.
As the official slogan for Boys State and Boys Nation says, it truly is “a week to change a lifetime.”