Benjamin Rawald can’t decide which is the greater benefit of receiving the 2019 Air Force Military Child of the Year® Award – the scholarship that will help him and his family pay for college or the attention he might garner for one of his favorite conservation concerns, saving monarch butterflies.
Both are excellent perks, says Benjamin, 17, who felt “shock, disbelief and then relief” when he found out he would receive the prestigious award. “As the son of a single mother, I am very worried about how I will pay for my college education,” he said, noting that he would like to become a computer engineer. “I am absolutely relieved that the scholarship will help me financially, but I also hope the recognition will help my environmental projects.”
After reading a National Geographic article about the reasons monarch numbers are declining – climate change and vanishing milkweed, the only plant that caterpillars eat – Benjamin consulted a biology professor about how he could help. Benjamin decided to plant milkweed, but not just a few plants. Over three years, he and local youth he trained spread 15,000 milkweed seeds in two neighboring Texas counties, the one where he lives in Del Rio, Texas, and the other where he attends high school as a junior in Brackettville.
First, Benjamin tested for the right combination of ingredients that would germinate well. That was a stinky job because the seed balls include manure. It was also an expensive project; Benjamin raised funds and paid some costs personally. And it was time-consuming. The seeds had to be refrigerated for two months to ensure success. But it was all worth it to help the threatened species, he said. “We can’t control the weather, but we can help to preserve the migratory path of the monarch.”
Benjamin also persuaded several local farmers to grow an additional 13 acres of milkweed. While it’s too soon to say whether his efforts have helped increase the butterfly population, Benjamin followed-up to determine that hundreds of mature milkweed plants resulted.
Benjamin’s other environmental projects have included removing invasive fish from a local creek, establishing four plastic bag recycling areas in his town when there had been none, numerous cleanups, wetlands revitalization, starting toner cartridge recycling at Laughlin AFB and recycling over 10,000 cartridges in three years. “Unfortunately, recycling does not save our world, proactivity does,” Benjamin said, a statement he backs up with hard work because he believes in the “leave no trace” outdoors ethic.
Benjamin’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable considering the challenges and obstacles he has faced growing up as a military child, which he described in an essay, including 24 months of deployments by his father, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel; his parents’ divorce; his mother’s cancer diagnosis; living far from extended family; and staying on and off with another military family during his mother’s treatment. He remembers the two years after the divorce as a time of “poverty, hunger and fear.” “We learned firsthand that military families take care of each other,” he said.
Joining the base Boy Scout troop in sixth grade at Laughlin AFB, where his mother works as a civilian Defense Department employee, helped him move beyond that difficult period, develop leadership and teamwork skills, and adopt values. The troop and the base youth center provided an education in the “school of life,” Benjamin said, where he learned to be his best self. He went on to become a mentor to younger scouts, an Eagle Scout and to earn the Venturing Summit Award in 2018. The Summit Award is Venturing’s highest honor given for mentoring and leadership. Benjamin received it for a 108-hour project teaching 43 school age kids cyber safety by running five lesson plans, games, videos and discussion activities.
Scouting has remained a constant in his life since. Though it was hard adjusting when several of his troop friends moved away the same summer because their military families were reassigned, he made it a point to continue befriending military students, even knowing they would leave after two to three years too.
“Civilian kids may not understand that making real friends with lots of new people means the world becomes a smaller place because you know and care for people all over the world,” Benjamin said.
Acknowledging that it’s not always easy to make friends, Benjamin said, “Social contacts are far more difficult when you are different than the norm, but I have always appreciated my inner nerd.”
Many others appreciate Benjamin’s qualities as well. Danny Williams, 47th Operations Group director of academics and simulations at Laughlin, wrote a letter commending Benjamin’s kindness, intelligence and service. Williams is a retired Air Force pilot and instructor pilot supervisor who has raised five Eagle Scouts with his wife, and serves as Eagle advancement chairman for their district. He said Benjamin stands out as “the jewel in Scouting’s Crown of achievements.”