By Sue Dickman ’89

How the U.S. Army led a Russian major to med school—even though he’ll turn 40 before he’s a doctor. [Second Act] Josh Cole ’99 is the son of a doctor and a nurse, so it might be unsurprising to learn he’s in his first year of medical school. What is surprising is the path he took to get there. At 37, Cole is the second-oldest person in his medical school class. He’s also a former U.S. Army Green Beret.

A Russian major at Amherst, Cole worked for an Internet start-up after graduation and interned at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. All along, he knew he wanted to do something outdoors and adventurous but didn’t know quite what; 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq crystallized his thoughts.

Early in the Iraq War, Cole found himself arguing about what “we” should be doing and suddenly realizing that when he said “we,” he actually meant somebody else. Cole was then 27 and still of military age. He began to wonder whether this was his “generation’s call to service.” As he puts it, “No matter whether you agree with both wars or any of them, there are people who are over in harm’s way in our name. I started thinking about that as something I could and maybe should do.” In July 2004, he entered basic training.

Cole enlisted via the 18X program, which enables those with no previous army experience to try out for the Special Forces. Despite the difficulty of the training, Cole declared himself too stubborn to quit and continued until he’d earned his green beret. His military occupational specialty was as a medic, and for this he spent a year in training, which included working in a hospital trauma unit. This experience gave him his first inkling of a new career, a sense of a possible future.

Josh Cole ’99 in Iraq

Serving in the U.S. Army gave Cole his first inkling of a new career.

In July 2007, two weeks after he’d joined the 10th Special Forces group in Colorado, Cole was in Iraq. His Special Forces career took him on a training mission to Africa in 2008 and then back to Iraq in 2009 for a second tour, for which he extended his Army stay. But at that point he had to choose whether to re-enlist, and in the end he opted for a nonmilitary life. A postbaccalaureate program at the University of Pennsylvania allowed him to take all the science classes he’d avoided at Amherst and then apply to medical school.

As for being one of the oldest people in his class at The Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton, Pa., Cole is sanguine. He doesn’t think about it much, he says, although he does realize that it gives him welcome perspective: Compared to younger students, he says, “it’s not that you’re any less stressed, but maybe you have more experience of being stressed and are able to anticipate it and welcome it as opposed to letting it get in your way.”

Josh Cole ’99

Now back in school, he is thinking about trauma surgery or emergency medicine as a specialty.

Although he is early in his medical school career, Cole is thinking about trauma surgery or emergency medicine as a specialty. In his trauma unit rotations during his medic course, he was drawn to the “hands-on aspect of doing the procedures, sort of being a plumber or a carpenter except with much higher stakes.” Cole describes his decision to leave the Army as a “selfish” one, but being a physician will allow him to serve his community and country in a different way.

Dickman blogs at Her essays have appeared in many publications, including the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor.