WASHINGTON — Country music star Craig Morgan had decided to step away from the military after more than 17 years of service, including nearly a decade on active duty.
But fans in the historic halls of the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night were in for an unprecedented surprise, when Morgan, 59, was sworn in as a warrant officer with the U.S. Army Reserves — becoming the first person to commission at the home of country music — Nashville, Tennessee.
“I feel like an 18-year-old kid, I can tell you,” Morgan said in an interview with NBC News ahead of the ceremony. “I’m excited, nervous. But humbled. I’m humbled for the opportunity.”
One year ago, after Morgan performed at a military fundraiser, he had told Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., that leaving the military early was his “biggest regret.”
“As a, you know, throwaway comment I said, ‘I’d love to finish my commitment — that’s a 20-year commitment to our country, and I want to finish that,’” Morgan recalled of their conversation. Soon after, Blackburn’s team connected Morgan with officials from the Department of Defense.
Amid projected shortfalls across several military branches, Morgan’s personal ambitions fell secondary to the main reason he decided to serve again. “I feel like if a guy like me, who has the career that I do, can go in and participate … anybody can do it,” he said Friday while on a tour bus in Britt, Iowa.
Morgan, who grew up poor, said the military opened doors for him: “If you join the military, you’re going to be afforded opportunities and situations for you to enhance and grow your life that you can’t get in the civilian populace.”
The Army missed its recruiting goal of new recruits by 15,000 last year, and is on track to miss its goal by 10,000 this year, according to recent congressional testimony from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. The Navy and Air Force also expect to fall short of their recruiting goals.
The military has fallen victim to politicization in recent years, with some Republicans attributing “far-left woke” policies — like once-mandatory Covid vaccinations, abortion access, and LGBTQ inclusivity — as a lynchpin for why recruitment is at a historic low.
Wormuth rebuked those claims in June, telling MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”: “We are a ready Army, not a ‘woke’ Army.” She also told reporters that the “drip, drip, drip of criticism about a woke military is having some counterproductive effects on recruiting.”
Previously a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Blackburn told NBC News on Friday that she believes young people do not have an “emphasis on doing for others that there ought to be,” adding: “People who go into the military are selfless and they put others before themselves.”
Morgan echoed Blackburn’s comments, but struggled to pinpoint an exact reason as to why the military is not able to attract sufficient recruits. “Budgets are important. Military force buildup is important,” he said.
“I also think it has a lot to do with this right here,” Morgan added, holding up his iPhone during the virtual interview. “They’re great if used properly. But there’s also something to be said about having to talk to someone, having to rely on someone, having to support someone.”
The Tennessee native — who tragically lost his son, Jerry, in a tubing accident in 2016 — said those who refuse to join the military due to political disagreements need to “put all of that aside.”
“I might not agree with everything this administration does, but I still go do my job and be all I can be so that I can be all I can be for everyone else,” he said.
In front of the American flag on stage where he swore in Morgan, commander of Army Forces Command, Gen. Andrew Poppas, said: “Every soldier who enters the Army has the opportunity to become the best version of themselves, and Staff Sgt. Morgan is no exception.”
Poppas added that he looks “forward to seeing what he [Morgan] accomplishes and how he impacts other soldiers around the Army.”
Morgan will be assigned to Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, where he will be stationed two days out of every month. The musician is currently on his God, Family Country tour across the country.
“Haven’t sung in uniform in a long time,” he said, performing his hit “Soldier” for the roaring crowd.