"If you ever want to make a Marine mad, call him a soldier."
The first time I saw Josh, he was leading worship at our church on a Thursday night. After welcoming those in attendance, he stopped to call attention to the t-shirt he was wearing, which sported a United States flag and the words, "Undefeated World War Champs." Our track record since then hasn't been so great, but I wasn't going to tell a muscular former-Marine-turned-fireman that. Not even in a church.
Prior to meeting up with him for a couple beers one Sunday afternoon, the only real interaction I'd had with Josh was when we helped lead a courtyard full of refugee children in singing Christmas carols last December. A group of people from our church have adopted an apartment complex in north Fort Worth where refugees from around the world are placed. I still laugh at myself for expecting a calm, orderly night of caroling by candlelight. It was a madhouse. Kids are kids are kids no matter where they're from, and that's especially true when you get them hopped up on hot chocolate and candy canes.
Josh and I had arrived early to practice in a quiet corner of the apartment complex parking lot, trying to read chord charts as they flapped around on the tailgate of his white, American-made pickup truck, complete with "Marines" bumper sticker. But if I'm going to purposefully call out the ways he fits a stereotype, I should also point out the bright neon ways that he doesn't. He'd given up his Friday evening to sing Christmas carols to a bunch of distracted kids from all over the world, including the very country he'd been deployed to. Twice. So we can all keep our 'Muricas to ourselves.
I asked Josh to chat for two reasons. One, I wanted to start a personal project where I interview people and take their portrait. Two, I've been reading a lot about war photographers lately and therefore a lot about Iraq, Afghanistan and the American military. Josh is the only person I know who's been in the military recently, and he was happy to tell me about it. In fact, he chastised me for being so formal when I asked him.
For Josh, one semester in college proved that it wasn't for him, and in February of 2007, he walked into a Marine recruiter's office to enlist (without telling his parents beforehand). Two months later, he left for boot camp. He was athletic and patriotic – why not?
"I can't honestly say that boot camp was hard for me, but it keeps out those who shouldn't be there."
Having always wanted to be a firefighter, Josh hoped to be assigned to Crash Fire Rescue, basically the firefighters of the Marines. But as Mick Jagger, the very opposite of a Marine, once said, you can't always get what you want. Josh was instead assigned as an aviation ordnanceman, responsible for loading, unloading and looking after Marine aircraft such as Huey and Cobra helicopters.
He was deployed to Iraq twice but never saw combat. He wished he had, as he said multiple times during our conversation; it was what he'd been trained for. Still, he knows how important air support was and is to the Marines on the ground, and he's able to take pride in the role he played. It was hot there, and communication to the States was spotty. Besides work, there wasn't much to do besides dip, smoke, lift weights and sleep.
Josh doesn't have PTSD, but he knows people who do. And did. His Facebook profile picture is of him in his dress uniform next to the casket of a friend and Marine who took his own life due to the disorder. "More American servicemen and women are killing themselves here at home than are dying overseas. It's a story that's not getting told enough."
Today, Josh is a firefighter with the Arlington Fire Department. He was one of 25 graduates from a class that began with 1500 applicants. Working the night shift throughout his time as a Marine, he still doesn't feel completely adjusted to normal daylight hours. But he's happy. He's working a job he likes in the place he feels like he's supposed to be.
There are many more pages of notes from our conversation that I haven't touched on. Interesting things. But I'm not writing a book, and you were never going to get to know Josh by reading this blog anyway. You probably don't even care (unless you know him, too). There are just so many people out there in the world, and it's a lot easier to get to know the Kardashians.
At my first job out of college, my office had a window that looked out onto the highway. I'd see all the cars passing by and think, each one of those cars has at least one person in it, and each one of them has at least sixteen years of life and experiences that I'll never know anything about. That thought always stressed me out.
This may or may not be a continuing series, but it's a good excuse to get to know some of those strangers from the highway.