The flight path Josh took to become a commercial airline pilot is at first glance, pretty typical.
Young boy inspired by Luke Skywalker, pursues Top Gun style fighter pilot career, retires military and becomes an airline pilot.
But let’s go back to the year he turned 16, the year he visited Poland as a Jewish teenager and saw Auschwitz. The place burned in the center of his heart and mind even after he returned to suburban American life. He still wanted the life of a fighter pilot, but the concentration camp reoriented his priorities. He couldn’t right the past atrocities against the Jewish people, but he could fight on their behalf today.
He would finish high school and attend Franklin and Marshall College, and even entertained a Marine recruiter’s attempts while there, but his mind was set on Israel for a mission he felt compelled to complete first.
He spent his junior year of college abroad in Jerusalem working out his larger plan, to serve with the Israeli army, as a paratrooper, the elite division of the army only held by Israelis who volunteer for higher service. “It was the only way I could Auschwitz off my back,” he said.
When he returned from Israel, along with his military training Josh brought with him a deep conviction that a country have both a ferocious warrior force and the wisdom to only use it for just causes.
He did eventually join the United States Marine Corp at 25 where his high tests scores and military experience gave him the prime flight contract he wanted. He became a skilled pilot who fell in love with dog fighting and went on to be a flight instructor, and even an instructor to instructors.
Chasing down an enemy target Josh was in his element (still today he describes flying as a visceral need). On the ground though, the realities of such a dangerous life were always in the background for him and his wife, even as they both embraced the call to serve the US.
“Aboard ship, every night I was worried about dying. Off the coast of Virginia, off the coast of Pakistan, it didn’t matter. Because you’re landing a plane on a ship.”
Even teaching students, he said, “What if one of my students crashes into me? I might not come home to my family.”
From day one Josh’s wife Jana became accustomed to the goodbyes and the knowledge that every day going to work could be his last. And then the calendar changed over to September 11, 2001 and Josh was on deck to answer with force. By then the couple had a child and faced an even more imminent possibility, that even if Josh performed his job with expert precision and caution, he could die in the night, 20,000 feet over a foreign country. During those five months he was clear on the enemy and the justice of his mission. “When I came home,” he said, “I thought we were done.”
Of course we weren’t done. The war continued. Instead of returning to the Middle East Josh took a mission in Japan and then another role as a flight school instructor to Marine pilots and then as an American attaché in Africa, hoping to “be a force for good and part of the solution.”
Last year, after 15 years flying fighter jets with the Marine Corp., the Major touched down in his hometown as a civilian. On his days off from work he rides his bike to a little coffee shop in his town and gives a hug to the barista he went to high school with. He spends time with his wife and son and daughter, takes trips out west to ski with his son. He relishes in his fortune to have served in the capacity he did. “Being a Marine officer is the best job in the world. You’re basically like Luke Skywalker.” In times of crisis, he said, “The United States turns to you.”
And he appreciates the weight that has been lifted since he retired, and the perspective he and his wife have now. On those missions, stateside and abroad, in peace and in war, Josh says, with absolute clarity, “I was prepared to die.”
Now he says, “I feel so alive. So free. Nothing stresses me out anymore… I’m in Valhalla.”
Though he’s retired from the Marine Corp. Josh, at 44, is in many ways just starting out, pursuing what makes him most happy, flying, in any form.
Talking to him you get the sense he’s strapping in for a new mission. Flying “big ass planes” to Europe and seaplane landings are the only aspects of aviation not on his resume and he’s hungry to add them. It’s not for a career move, but because, he says, like a little boy who loves Luke Skywalker and his X wing fighter, “I just love flying.”
Josh, thank you for your service and sacrifice. These words should immediately come to mind and greet every man and woman who has volunteered to protect America and defend our values. Your story is fascinating and learning how your heritage helped you navigate the path to fulfilling your dream to be a pilot will resonate with all Americans and their diverse personal histories.
Keep pursuing happy!