The Air Force Reserve’s newest flight surgeon was sworn into service by an astronaut flying at 17,500 miles per hour aboard the International Space Station 210 miles above the Earth on May 4.
“I’m very excited and humbled to start my Air Force Reserve career this way and I’m excited to serve the Airmen in the Air Force Reserve,” said the newly minted captain, Dr. Benjamin Johansen. “It was a very special experience to have the people I admire and look up to and have the pleasure of serving honor me back. I will remember this for the rest of my life.”
Lt. Col. Annie McClain is an Army officer, NASA flight engineer and the astronaut who administered the oath. Johansen works for NASA as a civilian and is currently one of two flight surgeons assigned to McClain, who is serving on a six-month mission onboard the space station. The flight surgeon took the oath from a mission control room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
“I asked her a few months ago if she would be willing to administer the oath of office from space and she graciously agreed,” Johansen said. “I am not sure if anyone has taken the oath for the first time from space; but to my knowledge, there have been various promotions performed over the years to servicemen and women of all the military branches.”
Before a group of Johansen’s friends, family and colleagues, McClain spoke to the group from the ISS briefly before giving the oath.
“I want to congratulate you on this decision,” she said. “It’s a very honorable decision to join the armed forces of the United States of America. Having worked with you, I can say without any reservation that the Air Force is absolutely lucky to have a man like you in its ranks.”
She went on to challenge Johansen to hit the ground running since he will be starting his military career as a captain, a rank that typically takes four to eight years to obtain.
“When most people join the military, there’s a long period of training – the adaptation of the experiences on both the enlisted and the officer side,” she said. “You have a unique task in front of you since you are going to be a captain from day one. That is no small feat. That means the first day you are in the Air Force you will be expected to lead. You will have Airmen who look up to you for leadership and you will be expected to know and uphold the highest standards of military service. I know without a doubt you are up to the challenge.”
After he was sworn in, Johansen responded to McClain’s challenge.
“I accept the challenge to become a good leader from day one and to serve this country and represent all of you who have been here to support me honorably,” he said.
The relationship between astronauts and their flight surgeon is very unique. The doctors are often the last person to see the astronauts before they go into orbit and the first to greet them after touchdown.
“Like any flight surgeon, we can start, stop or continue an aviator’s career, at least from the standpoint of their medical certification,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Schmid III, a NASA flight surgeon and an Air Force Reserve individual mobilization augmentee assigned to the Pentagon as the mobilization assistant to the Air Force surgeon general.
“We literally place our lives in their hands when we go flying with them in the T-38s,” he said. “Our bonds with our patients, the astronauts, is something I’ve never before nor might never experience anywhere else. … other than when I’ve taken care of Air Force pilots and their families and my fellow Reservists, of course.”
Retired Army Col. Doug “Papa Wheels” Wheelock, an astronaut who has been to space twice and commanded the ISS in 2010, helped preside over the oath ceremony. Johansen is Wheelock’s flight surgeon and the two have years of experience working together.
“We’re with each other all day, every day and while we are in space we have conferences with our doctors and our psychologists all through our flights,” he said. “Space flight has challenges that happen to you psychologically and physically. You feel isolated from your home planet and you have a feeling of separation. The flight docs are kind of the honest broker. They help you reach deep and rediscover strengths you have inside you. He’s been a great friend to me, a confidant and a professional through and through. He’s helped me with a lot of stuff.”
Officials with AFRC Recruiting Service said having an oath administered from space was a first for them.
“I have witnessed countless enlistments and oaths in my more than 14 years in AFRC recruiting,” said Senior Master Sgt. Michael Melendez, a health professions recruiting flight chief assigned to Fort Worth. “This day reminds me just how important our recruiting job is; to be part of this special day for Dr. Johansen, his family and his colleagues, we can never take our job lightly. We can make a difference in every applicant we meet. Let’s always strive to be our best.”
Recruiting people like Johansen falls in line with the Reserve’s goal of finding innovative ways to leverage civilian talents to implement best practices and discover new ways of operating better.
Johansen, who will be assigned to the 433rd Airlift Wing, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, said the decision to have his oath administered from space was an easy one.
“It was important to me to take the oath with my NASA family that has supported and encouraged me to achieve this goal,” he said. “For me, NASA embodies how the seemingly impossible can be achieved through ingenuity, teamwork and hard work by many passionate professionals.
“I am fortunate to work closely with some of these individuals who are currently serving on the International Space Station. It is a privilege to support them from the Johnson Space Center and to play a small role in the success of their mission.”