Who would think that I’d have anything in common with Josh Vanderbrink, a former Air Force parajumper who conducted 2000+ missions during twenty-one combat deployments, patched up soldiers with life-threatening wounds, jumped from helicopters into the frigid, 43-degree waters off Iceland, and who now retrofits Mercedes Sprinter vans for a living?
You’re right if you say “Nothing.”
Except. We have a friend in common. Sort of. Josh Vanderbrink’s friend is Jules Lambries (Lambert) and Jules is my son. Jules read my last blog about the adventuresome Dave Rems and his bicycle trip from Florida to Washington State, and said, “Mom, You should talk to Josh. He’d make a good blog topic.”
Josh is a fiery, red-headed guy who grew up in San Diego. As a child, his Halloween garb was always that of a soldier’s. He thought he wanted to be a Navy Seal. When he was a junior in high school, he moved to New Orleans by himself (now that’s another story). Pastors at his local church recognized his spirituality and leadership abilities and encouraged him to go to seminary. He made it through two years, then decided “It just wasn’t for me.”
Returning to San Diego, he and a bunch of friends took their ATVs out into the desert. One of them crashed—“right in front of me. His face was smashed. Nobody knew how to help. All we could do was stand by and watch him die. It had a terrific impact on me. It changed my life. It was the reason I became a PJ.”
Air Force PJs—or parajumpers— are Special Operations Pararescue Specialists who recover downed airmen from hostile or unreachable areas in every kind of terrain. They go through two years of grueling physical and mental training. The first ten weeks is an indoctrination period, some of which seems brutal, some of which made Josh shed tears. It took him two tries to get through the “Indoc” portion because of an injured shoulder. He failed the final test by two push-ups. During that last failed attempt, his commanding officer said “You can either get a medical discharge or come back tomorrow at 4 a.m. and start all over. At the beginning.” He chose the latter.
In defense of the program, Josh said, “It’s all about how you view the world. Things may seem inhumane if you’re not thinking about the preservation of our military and freedom.” His tenacity stood him in good stead during rescues in Alaska, Africa, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iceland and Iraq. He blew his knee out four times. When he exited a helicoper on a mission in Afghanistan, he landed on a sheet of ice, injuring his ACL and ending his tour and his career.
There were two epiphanies during his enlistment that he’d focused on for his post-service life. Observing some of his fellow soldiers, he decided, “I didn’t want to be that guy who spends his life talking about what he wants to do. I’m going to have a goal.” That goal became clearer when his first wife severed ties with him.
“I had signed divorce papers, picked up my motorcycle and gotten through bumper-to-bumper traffic in Los Angeles,” he reflects. “I stopped at a gas station and this guy came up to me and said, ‘Where are you going?’ to which Josh answered, “This is a journey. The destination…well, that’s optional.”
He started Destination Optional, a company which began organizing adventure tours, and now specializes in retrofitting Mercedes Sprinter vans. His experience came from working with his dad and brothers, doing carpentry on the side, and building off-road trucks and motorcycles.
“In between combat missions, there were long stretches of time. I built out my motorcycles and trucks and modified a Toyota Tundra for camping. Fabrication is my passion and I love it. Right now I’m finishing a prisoner transport with the potential of three more coming.”
He tries to live by Edmund Hillary’s philosophy: “It’s not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves.”
He is married to Stephanie Burns, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot. They are the parents of Magdalene Rose, their three–month old daughter named after Josh’s grandmother. They live in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City. Josh’s shop is in downtown Salt Lake.
P.S. I do have something in common with Josh: cold water swimming. Every summer, I dive into the lake in May, usually a cool 65 degrees, just steps away from our backdoor. Last year, I swam until November 1st, if you can call my last dunk “swimming.” The quick numbing of my arms and legs nudged me out of the water in five minutes. Just for grins, I dropped the thermometer into the lake: 41 degrees.
Josh would have kept swimming.