EGLIN AFB — "Aww ... that’s awesome!"
That’s how one of the two dozen U.S. Army enlistees gathered Wednesday at Camp Rudder reacted when Col. Andrew Morgan did a back flip shortly after issuing their oath of enlistment.
It wasn’t that difficult for Morgan, however, because he was weightless at the time — as he has been for all of his current tour aboard the International Space Station.
In a couple of firsts for the Army — the first enlistment oath administered from space, and the first nationwide enlistment oath — more than 1,000 Army enlistees at 150 locations across the country began their military careers as the officer administering the oath soared 250 miles above their heads.
"It’s really a great honor to administer the oath of enlistment from this magnificent spacecraft," Morgan told the local enlistees at Camp Rudder, and the others across the country, via a video link from the space station.
Morgan is part of the U.S. Army Astronaut Detachment, which supports NASA with flight crew and provides engineering expertise to the space agency. Selected to become an astronaut in 2013, Morgan also is an emergency physician in the Army. An Airborne and Ranger combat veteran, Morgan has completed seven spacewalks and one space flight to the International Space Station.
And while he is now an astronaut, Morgan told the enlistees, "I was a soldier first." Today, he said, "I’m just serving in space, on the ultimate high ground."
During the video link Morgan took questions previously submitted by the enlistees, read to him by Brig. Gen, Patrick Michaelis, deputy commanding general for operations with the United States Army Recruiting Command. Michaelis was at NASA’s Space Center Houston, as the space agency partnered with the Army for Wednesday’s historic event.
One of those questions came from Matthew Coffee, a 28-year-old University of South Carolina graduate who coached football at Fort Walton Beach High School before enlisting.
"Matthew Coffee, from Fort Walton Beach, asks, ’What is the most surprising thing about being in space that you’ve learned?," Michaelis read, to the surprise of Coffee and others in the Camp Rudder auditiorium.
In his answer, Morgan referenced a challenge that many of the enlistees will face — long periods away from home.
"... When you see our social media and stuff, it always looks like we’re having a good time," Morgan said. "And that is true. We are often having a good time, but it’s also very difficult. There have been times when it has been very stressful ... Just like a military deployment, when you’re separated from your loved ones, that adds stress, and that can be difficult. But at the end there’s a reunion, and it will all be worth it."
"It was pretty surreal," Coffee said when asked about having his question chosen for Morgan. "I’m honored, obviously."
As one of the older enlistees, Coffee will be attending Officer Candidate School, and is hoping for an assignment in aviation or infantry.
Other enlistees gathered at Camp Rudder also were amazed at taking their oath from an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.
"It’s actually exciting," said 22-year-old Dustin Richardson of DeFuniak Springs as he waited for the historic event to begin. Richardson, a student at Emerald Coast Technical College — he’ll graduate at about the same time he reports for basic training — will train to be a truck driver, he said.
Also at the ceremony was Rashad Nickson, 25, of Panama City, who is currently working in the food service industry and will train as a vehicle mechanic in the Army.
"It feels pretty cool," he said as he waited to take the oath. "I’ve never done anything like this before."
Capt. Dan Erickson, commander of the Army recruiting unit based in Dothan, Alabama, which covers parts of Alabama and Northwest Florida, said the special enlistment oath ceremony was "piggybacking on the whole space effort," particularly in light of the recent creation of the U.S. Space Force, the new sixth branch of the U.S. military.
Also, according to a news release announcing the special enlistment oath, the Army is the largest user of "space-enabled systems" communications and intelligence.
"Soldiers need satellites in space to help them see, shoot, move and communicate," the release noted.
Some of the enlistees at Camp Rudder waited to be sworn in until they had the opportunity to participate in Wednesday’s event.
"We wanted to hold off," Erickson said. "We wanted to make sure we capitalized on an opportunity." Erickson himself is capitalizing on an opportunity, as he has been selected for the Army’s own space effort, although that won’t necessarily mean he’ll be chosen as an astronaut.
In remarks from Houston, Michaelis took a moment to address the parents and families of the enlistees at the nationwide ceremony, "where they will launch — no pun intended — their military careers.
"We are privileged to welcome your sons and daughters into our Army family," Michaelis said.