FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- With over 10,000 jumps to his name, the Golden Knights tandem team leader said Thursday’s nationally televised free-fall with a former president’s daughter was his favorite to date.
In addition to accomplished jumps, 10,000 is also the number of feet the duo plunged from. Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Abeln and Jenna Bush-Hager, the daughter and granddaughter of two former presidents and “Today” show co-host, jumped to honor the memory of President George H. W. Bush, he said.
“The weather was perfect for a jump today -- clear blue skies, light winds,” Abeln said during an interview. “Jenna was a little on the nervous side, but that’s to be expected jumping out of an airplane for the first time.”
That morning, their aircraft departed from the Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and quickly reached the optimal altitude for skydiving. Around this time, Abeln said Bush-Hager got nervous, but “we talked to her and lightened the mood a little bit,” he said.
This was not the first time Abeln jumped with a member of the Bush family. He was part of former president Bush’s 2009 jump to celebrate his 85th birthday, when Bush jumped in tandem with retired Sgt. 1st Class Mike Elliott, a former Golden Knight who watched Abeln and Bush-Hager from the ground.
Elliott, who befriended the former president during their multiple jumps together, told Bush-Hager that her grandfather would have “been very proud watching you fall today,” he said during a “Today” show interview.
Bush, a former Navy pilot, received a Distinguished Flying Cross for actions during World War II, and years later celebrated many of his later birthdays by skydiving. He would have turned 97 on June 12.
The tandem jumpers soared nearly 2 miles, then hit their landing mark on the grounds of the National Museum of the United States Army, which celebrated its grand reopening Monday on the Army’s 246th birthday.
“The Army’s history is America’s history, with so many heroes that raised their right hands and said ‘send me,’” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville said during an interview with Bush-Hager earlier this week. “We look at the World War II generation as the greatest generation and I would argue that’s absolutely true, but every generation has its heroes and those heroes are shown here [at the museum].”
The museum originally opened in November but closed its doors a month later due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I can’t wait to visit the U.S. Army Museum,” former First Lady Laura Bush said during the broadcast, adding her father was also a World War II veteran.
Tandem jumps with public figures and community leaders, like with the Bush family, is a way for the Golden Knights to show another side of the Army to the next generation of Soldiers, high school teachers and counselors, Abeln said.
For instance, nearly two decades ago, before his military career started, Abeln was a college student in St. Louis, Missouri, and was passionate about skydiving. Shortly after a chance run-in with Soldiers from the Golden Knights, he found himself in a recruiter’s office.
“I never met anyone in the Army before until I met the Golden Knights,” he said. “Sometimes we’re the first impression community partners have with the military. It’s a great experience for us to talk to passengers [like Bush-Hager] and explain our Army story.”
While there is no military occupational specialty for the Golden Knights, it’s something airborne Soldiers can apply for later in their careers.
The team’s outreach efforts are a unique way to tell the Army story through multiple backgrounds, and can “bridge a connection between the local community and the U.S. Army,” said Abeln, who originally enlisted as a petroleum supply specialist.
At the end of the day, “jumping is how we get to work,” Abeln said. “Our work starts when we land and interact with the crowd. We invite kids out to pack our parachutes, [and] we’re talking to their family as they’re packing. We’re always going to put a smile on our face, and interact with everyone who wants to learn about the Army.”