The University of Central Florida (UCF) and Air Force ROTC Detachment 159 (Det 159) received the Department of Defense ROTC and Educational Institution Partnership Excellence Award in late April.


A relatively new honor, the Partnership Excellence Award is given once a year to top Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC programs in the country, as well as their affiliated institutions. This year’s Air Force award recognizes UCF, and Det 159’s efforts during the 2021-2022 academic year, among a total of 145 Air Force ROTC programs nationwide.


The official, judged criteria: program performance, educational institution support, and other noteworthy achievements. Det 159 had accomplishments in each category that set itself apart from other programs. To cite a few examples, Det 159’s cadets had a 60% selection rate in securing competitive slots to be pilots and navigators, a Det 159 cadet co-captained UCF’s five-time cyber defense national championship team, and Det 159 was selected to lead as the national headquarters for the Air Force ROTC honor society.


However, Air Force Col. Michael Peeler, Det 159 commander, clarified that this win was the result of several entities’ support in the greater Orlando community.


“This award isn’t about just the detachment or the university, it really celebrates the entire ‘ecosystem’ we have here in Central Florida,” Peeler said. “I recently sent a ‘thank you’ note to 108 people.”


In 1968, NASA and UCF (then called Florida Technical University) signed an agreement, and with specific focus on the Space Race and the Space Coast, Det 159 was established in January 1972 to help cultivate leaders as the university developed its partnership with NASA. Since then, UCF’s Air Force ROTC program has, per its mission, educated, trained and mentored leaders of character through academic, physical and professional development.


When Peeler and Space Force Lt. Col. James Cooper, Det 159’s director of staff, both reported for duty with UCF’s “Flying Knights” in summer 2021, they decided the cadre would change how they engaged their neighbors. According to Peeler, Det 159’s outreach began as an effort to address education and training gaps for cadets, such as internship opportunities and simulation capabilities.


“We were coming out of the pandemic, and we were going to actively get out to meet people and build relationships for our cadets – we knew there were untapped resources,” Peeler said. “After we said it out loud, we went out and did it. Once we got the ball rolling, it was pretty easy, but we had to be deliberate in going down this path as a priority for the development of our future leaders.”


Det 159 leadership met with George Cheros and Dr. Neal Finkelstein at the National Center for Simulation. After attending a board meeting, opportunities to engage with the modeling, simulation and training (MS&T) community exploded. According to Peeler, his cadre have found the MS&T community to be very supportive when asked about resources to help their students.


“For every door we opened, there were 10 more doors inviting us to come through… the folks in this ecosystem want to support one another,” Peeler said. “From Research Park to Tech Grove and local veterans organizations, everyone we link up with wants to be a part of – and contribute to – our mission. That’s different from what we’ve experienced in our past Air Force lives, and that engagement has been a lot of fun.”


Peeler and Cooper have both noticed certain beneficial aspects of this ecosystem now extending beyond Central Florida. Cooper said that additional partnerships for UCF and the Flying Knights are developing as far away as Patrick Air Force Base and the Space Coast.


“The university is now recognized as a strategic partner for the Space Force,” Cooper said. “We’re building these bridges and helping to leverage various discussions by having those contacts and working with them. Now, we’re seeing a direct result [of these relationships] with our cadets applying for internships on the Space Coast, and we’ve had Space Force officers come here looking for cadets to work with them during the summer.”


The Department of Defense ROTC and Educational Institution Partnership Excellence Award actually came as a surprise to the Flying Knights’ cadre.


“When we started down this path to engage a year and a half ago, we didn’t even know this award existed,” Peeler said. “[When I learned of this award] I said, ‘Sure, we’ve been doing some cool partnership stuff, let’s submit and see what happens.’ There was never any expectation we were going to win.”


When Cooper wrote and submitted Det 159’s package for the Partnership Excellence Award, he emphasized that the partnership involved more than just UCF and the detachment. He included developments occurring outside Gemini Circle as well.


“This is not an ROTC thing or a university thing, it’s a greater Orlando thing,” Cooper said. “There is a sense that the community here is strong but growing, both geographically and in the connective tissue between all of us. The more we do at our level, like a muscle, that connective tissue gets stronger and stronger, and that’s where we want to go.”


Peeler noted that the MS&T community in Central Florida was different from his experience in other professional environments in a very significant and beneficial way.


“[This award] speaks to that culture of the ecosystem we have, and the willingness for partners to come on board,” Peeler said. “This ecosystem is unlike any other in that [organizations] are always looking to support one another – it’s a very interesting place to be. When I go to events outside the detachment… I almost never see any competition, it’s always collaboration.”


The Partnership Excellence award will be officially presented to Det 159 during a formal ceremony scheduled for later this fall.


“We’re in the nascent stages of developing awesome partnerships around here,” Peeler said. “We’re just getting started.”


UCF’s Air Force ROTC program is based on a traditional, four-year model for young men and women to earn a university degree and a commission simultaneously, then graduate to lead as officers in the Air Force and Space Force. To learn more, go to

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