By Molly Lyons '97
How Josh Gross ’98 came to fly helicopters in the U.S. Navy and then, on a foggy night in Texas, to die for his country.
Shortly after 8 p.m. on Jan. 16, 2008, an MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter went down in a muddy field near the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas. The four-man crew, part of a Blackhawk squadron based in Corpus Christi, had been on a routine training operation. The crash left three crew members dead, among them Joshua W. Gross ’98, a 30-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.
The people closest to Gross know little about the circumstances of the accident. But they do know something about the young man who became a U.S. Navy officer seven months into the war in Iraq. And if you were to ask these friends and relatives to describe Josh Gross, this is what you’d hear: he was good-hearted, he wore his heart on his sleeve, he was big-hearted, he had a generous heart, he followed his heart. It was his heart and where it led him that made Gross who he was: a man who found his footing on top of mountains and in the sky.
Gross faced his first challenge immediately after birth, when he scored extremely low on the Apgar test, which measures heart rate, reflexes and breathing ability, among other things. He was in the neo-natal intensive care unit for days, says his father, Walter. But the baby went on to survive and thrive. Raised in Johnson City, N.Y., near Binghamton, Gross had two younger brothers and two younger sisters. He took his position as eldest child seriously. His mother, Karen, remembers that when the kids would play the make-believe game Transformers, her oldest son was always Optimus Prime—the leader. Much later, while stationed in Norfolk, Va., Gross drove all the way back to Johnson City to surprise his sister Elizabeth when she starred in her school play.
As a child, Gross excelled in school—so much so that he skipped fourth grade. He arrived at Amherst at 17, a good year younger than most of his classmates. It was a difficult transition. “Josh was brilliant and didn’t have to work too hard in high school,” his brother Nate says, “so he figured Amherst would be the same. He was very surprised to learn differently.” Gross took pre-med courses at first, later switching his major to economics, “which he enjoyed more and did better in,” Nate says.
Gross lived in Pratt his freshman year. “He didn’t always fit in,” says his friend Chris Hardin ’98, who lived on the same floor. Not only was Gross physically smaller, he was less mature and less prepared socially. But he was also a sincere and loyal friend. “He’d act as my grammar coach, giving my papers a once-over,” says Geoff Spies ’98, another Pratt floormate. After Gross’s death, a Johnson City schoolmate approached Walter Gross in a store: “She told me she would never have graduated if it weren’t for Josh, who spent every morning tutoring her before school.”
What Gross lacked at Amherst, at first, was confidence. Friends say he came into his own during junior year, when he was a vital member of the ski team. (Later he joined the rugby team as well.) He shone most brightly on the slopes. Gross skied for the first time when he was 11 years old on a school trip. “He wanted to join the middle school ski team,” his mother says, “but I explained to him that the dues and equipment were too expensive. So he got himself a paper route to earn the money to ski—and worked that route until he graduated from high school.”
His senior year at Amherst, Gross was captain of the ski team. David Bobruff ’97, a former team member, came back to Amherst that year to visit the team. Bobruff was recovering from brain surgery. “I was able to walk up the mountain, but I wasn’t wearing the right shoes, and I realized I’d have trouble getting down. Josh immediately took off his boots and skis and let me ski to the bottom.” Skiers don’t part easily with their boots, and Bobruff never forgot the act. “He made me feel welcome and part of the team that day,” Bobruff says. “And I could see how he had really stepped up to become a leader.”
When many of his classmates were applying to graduate school, seizing dot-com opportunities or being recruited to Wall Street, Gross kept his options open. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he knew what he did not want to do: sit behind a desk all day. He returned to Johnson City and taught for a year at a nearby ski slope. “So many of us, when we come out of the gate in college, do what we are ‘supposed’ to do,” says his friend Chris Kaegi ’98. “And it was always refreshing to talk to Josh not about what you do but who you are. He had a huge influence on me and made me better able to listen to myself.”
Gross moved to Breckenridge, Colo., to teach skiing. He specialized in instructing children and families. “Kids loved him,” says Isela Rosales, an ex-girlfriend. “He’d wear a name tag that said ‘Josh is Gross’ and the kids would remember him and request him again and again.”
When he wasn’t teaching, he biked, hiked and water-skied—and even sky-dived. Off-season, he lived in San Francisco and worked in restaurants. He became a wine enthusiast and was always up for a road trip. But as time passed, he wanted to dig into something more solid—“to expand his horizons,” says his brother Nate, “and feel as though he was making a difference.”
There was no single reason why Gross decided to join the Navy. His friends and family say he began to investigate the possibility shortly after 9/11. In college, Kaegi remembers, Gross talked about wanting to be a pilot and an astronaut. Nate Gross says his brother always dreamed of going into space. To many, the Navy is known as an entry point to NASA. Still, Gross’s decision came as a surprise to many who knew him.
Gross was commissioned as a Naval officer on Oct. 31, 2003, and took his first solo flight the following August. He was designated as a Naval aviator on Dec. 16, 2005. “I remember him telling me that he didn’t want to die for his country, but that he was prepared to do so,” Nate says. Gross and his unit were scheduled to leave for Bahrain in November 2008; Corpus Christi was his first operational command.
“The last time I saw Josh, we were at a party in San Francisco, and he was wearing a leather flight jacket. He had a swagger and a confidence I hadn’t seen before,” says Michael Spirito ’98, who was in Gross’s room group junior year. “He loved to talk about what he was doing, and he was the life of that party. He wouldn’t have been that comfortable being the center of attention at Amherst. I was really proud of him.”
While he may have continued to dream about NASA, once he started flying helicopters, Gross focused his attention on the Navy. “He knew he had a bright career ahead of him there,” his brother says.
About two weeks before he was killed, Gross sent a Facebook message to one of his first-year floormates, Paul Rieckhoff ’98, who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq. In the message, according to Rieckhoff, Gross said he was enjoying life as a helicopter pilot and looking forward to deploying with his men.
Days after the accident, which took place on a densely foggy night, the Navy held a memorial service in Corpus Christi to honor Gross and the two other crewmen, Alexander “Kip” LeMarr, 25, and David Davison, 22, both petty officers, 2nd class. Gross’s family held another service for him in Johnson City. The Navy is also planning a permanent memorial in Corpus Christi.
For now, his friends and family find solace where they can: in the fact that Gross died doing something he loved. “He lived his life the way he thought it should be lived,” says Nate Gross, who followed his brother into the Navy. “He lived a meaningful life.”
Molly Lyons ’97 is a writer in New York City.
Photos by Isela Rosales and Chuck Haupt/Press & Sun Bulletin
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