On May 1, 2012, Sgt. 1st Class Justin Merhoff, was caught on video executing an “exploding” fist bump with President Obama. The president was visiting Afghanistan around the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, Merhoff was on his second tour of Afghanistan, and the two shared a beautiful, spontaneous moment — one Merhoff wants to share with the world.
“I’m just trying to get that video out there and know that other people would want to see that,” the 33-year-old native of Red Bluff, Calif., told me in a phone interview. He has been in the Army 16 years and had, at the time, volunteered for the deployment from Fort Gordon, Ga.
He posted the video to YouTube in January, on Inauguration Day. In recent days, he’s used Twitter in many attempts to get celebrities to retweet it. Among them are Jimmy Fallon, Sarah Silverman, Big Boi, Leann Rimes, Oprah Winfrey, Ryan Seacrest, Sherri Shepherd, and Tom Arnold.
(At this point, Merhoff and I went off topic to discuss Merhoff’s connection with Tom Arnold. Tom Arnold’s role as a comms expert in the movie “True Lies” inspired Merhoff to become an Army signals specialist. Also, Merhoff met Tom Arnold in 2006 when the actor’s handshake tour made an unscheduled stop at Jalalabad. Tom Arnold happened on some soldiers watching a bootleg of one of his movies, “Soul Plane,” which Merhoff finds embarrassing. Tom Arnold didn’t seem to mind, he said.)
Anyway, Merhoff’s efforts to hype the exploding fist bump have so far met with mixed success. The the highest-profile retweeters have been MMA fighter Renzo Gracie, TapouT clothing’s Dan “Punkass” Caldwell, UFC fighter Kenny Florian and Paul Rieckhoff, of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
To get a sense of Merhoff’s motives, you have to ask him to recall the building excitement that day in 2012 as the crowd of soldiers waited hours in that hangar in Baghram for an unknown VIP. It had been billed as a USO show as a cover, but then the president’s advance team entered the room, which is when folks realized something was up.
“It was crazy when they realized who it was,” Merhoff said. “It was military pandemonium. They didn’t lose their minds because they aren’t allowed to lose their minds. There were a few, some Guard members, and I’m not knocking them because they only play on the weekends, but some of them, their composure isn’t the same.”
“Hail to Chief” blared, the president was introduced by Gen. John Allen — then the commander of U.S. and Nato troops in Afghanistan — and the commander-in-chief addressed the troops. Afterwards, Obama made several laps around the hangar. Merhoff’s first fist bump wasn’t caught on video, so he went for another.
“I planned to at least do a fist bump, I wasn’t planning on exploding,” Merhoff said. “When he came around again, he went for a handshake and I said, ‘Can we do a fist bump again.’ He does it, and all I’m asking for is a fist bump but we both do exploding fist bumps at the exact same time — simultaneously, as though it was planned.”
“I said, ‘Booyah,'” Merhoff said.
The desire to have a celebrity retweet the video and for it to go viral, Merhoff insisted, is not about self-aggrandizement.
“It’s not for me, I’m not trying to sell anything, I’m not trying to be a celebrity, ‘look at me, look at me,'” Merhoff said. “But if you’ve seen any other of his fist bumps, they’re pretty cool–this one is pretty epic.”
Merhoff said the spontaneous moment says something about him–he’s a nonpartisan soldier–and something about the president.
“He’s human,” Merhoff said. “He’s bringing a piece of home. It was great for him to show that he cared, and that’s the moment I want to share. It’s to show that he does actually connect with us.”