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Life Outside the Wire

by Paul Hertneky

Josh Tuscher in his turret, photo by Bob LaPree, NH Union-Leader

Instinct seldom travels along a prescribed path. Following impulse and opportunity with intense interest, Josh Tuscher '06 recounts an adventure that weaves outside the bounds of familiarity, ending in unimaginable circumstances – and leaves the impression that many more twists and turns lie ahead.

As we spoke, he swiveled his desk chair away from his view of the most recognizable residence in America. His rapid recollections rise to a pitch you might expect from a man who is repeatedly pinching himself.

“Reporting for duty actually saved me from what I thought was going to be a terrible, half-baked thesis.”

"I didn't go to college right away. Didn't know what I wanted to do. Traveled across country and just had fun, partied a lot. Chad Cassin '01 was my first good friend to go to college, and I went to visit him at KSC and it was like, yeah, this is cool. So my brother and I rented a house in Richmond [NH] and my brother started taking classes. I got a job as a janitor at a car dealership. My journey started there.

"One day I was cleaning the toilets at 6:30 in the morning, and I thought, 'Whoa, what am I doing with my life here?' I was 23; it was 1997. I immediately looked into Keene State. I needed a way to pay for it, so I talked to the New Hampshire National Guard recruiter. I decided I would go for the Mountain Infantry Company because I thought that would be the hottest thing I could do and still go to school. Plus, I wanted a physical shock because I was way out of shape."

Do you get the sense of an older freshman, trying to feel his way along? It gets better.

"I came back from basic training to live in a house on Pearl Street – six of us, a cat, and a dog. It was a big crazy house. I didn't know what I wanted to do at school."

He signed up for a few courses but nothing in particular caught his fancy. But then, "I took German and I was interested in that right away. Professor [Helen] Frink and I got pretty close and it used to bug her because I was pretty bad with the English language, let alone German, but she always worked with me. She's a great professor. Whenever she saw a student who was genuinely interested she would stay after and help."

"He was older than the average student, and he was drifting," recalls Frink, who retired in 2009. "German, at first, it wasn't terribly easy for him. I remember he would get out of one class and come to my office, and he very much wanted to know things, wanted to be sure he got it. And he was very thorough. He wanted to understand."

Hearing him talk about studying in Germany, and wanting to support his newfound direction, Frink suggested Marburg, a medium-size university city. He dove in, and stayed for two years.

"That's typical of Josh," says Cassin, who knew Tuscher as a boy and at Keene State. "He may seem like he's wandering, but once something captures his interest, once he heads off in a particular direction, an almost maniacal need to understand takes over. He immerses himself. In Germany, he hung out almost exclusively with Germans. If his fascination hadn't landed on Germany and German, he would have dived into something else."

And he did.

According to Cassin, Tuscher pursues his interests with complete absorption so as to feel them in his bones and inhabit his understanding. For instance, Cassin says, "when he put on his uniform, he didn't look much different; he already was a soldier, through and through."

Photo: Josh Tuscher '06 on Capitol Hill

During his first year in Germany, Tuscher took the usual required courses.

"But after that I did some really cool stuff," he says. "I had a German minor but was majoring in graphic design, so I took some art classes – a lot of printmaking. To fulfill the requirements we only had to do two etchings, but I took it to another level and made a print and etching art book."

Tuscher hoped to stay beyond two years. He had transferred from the National Guard into an Army Reserve unit stationed there.

To enter the University of Marburg and finish his degree in Germany, he would need to pass a language test. He failed by a half point. "It was one of those things that drastically altered the course of my life – that half point," he says. "I would have gone to Iraq for the invasion with the 1st Armored Division."

His book of etchings and prints helped him gain footing back at Keene State. "None of the art professors knew me; I had been gone for so long. But Professor [Yuan] Pan really helped me develop artistically. We're similar in age, and he talked to me about entering KSC's newly formed Bachelor in Fine Arts program, which had just started up. I went for it, extending my studies by a year. That was another fork in my road, but I had him as an adviser and mentor."

Learning a new art form while trying to assemble a senior thesis threw Tuscher into a spin. In late 2003, he was plodding.

Disappointed with his state-side Army Reserve unit, he struggled, and eventually succeeded at returning to the New Hampshire National Guard – the 172nd Mountain Infantry Regiment. By Christmas break, he needed to travel, and spent the holiday in Germany.

Photo: Josh Tuscher

Perhaps the scene of his love affair with language and art would supply the inspiration he needed for his thesis project. But that inspiration would come only after life took yet another turn.

"When I got back to the States on the day before New Year's Eve, I noticed a pile of mail from my [National Guard] unit. I'd been called to active duty two weeks earlier! Then I played my answering machine and the messages were getting angrier and angrier, sort of an audio montage that was pretty funny. Reporting for duty actually saved me from what I thought was going to be a terrible, half-baked thesis. So I had a new project as of January 4th."

And he packed his video camera.

Tuscher's unit landed at Camp Anaconda, the largest U.S. base in Iraq, with a PX the size of a Wal-Mart, which required a steady stream of supplies that went far beyond food, water, and fuel. Someone had to protect those convoys, and that job fell to units like Tuscher's.

"When we got there it wasn't bad," says Tuscher. "Then the insurgency kicked off and we thought, 'Oh, man, this going to be a long year.' We also did personal security details, and training of Iraqi police. I got to video a lot of different aspects of Iraq, outside the wire every day, which was fortunate in many ways. I didn't really want to sit on the base for the whole year."

Life outside the wire, though, meant IEDs and roadside firefights, real danger for Tuscher, who manned a 50-caliber machine gun atop a truck.

His three-man team encountered their share of tense moments, and although his Staff Sergeant Patrick Clarke appreciated Tuscher and his driver, he knew none of them would be career soldiers.

"We had a poor squad leader and that really takes its toll on the guys. I didn't think Josh would stay in any longer than he had to. Between him and my driver, I came home with no hair, my blood pressure was through the roof. But I came home with all my parts and pieces, so they did something right," says Clarke.

Tuscher returned to Keene armed with fresh ideas for his senior thesis and loads of video footage, some of which would earn him a screen credit on the award-winning documentary The War Tapes.

He began to blend his footage with poetry, music, and paintings, riding a creative high, only to be interrupted by Hurricane Katrina and deployment to New Orleans.

After less than a month he was back home and working on his thesis piece again – an installation that Professor Pan said "questioned the nature of war and of human beings." It won top honors in the annual graphic design student exhibition.

"That was a night I'll never forget," Tuscher says. "It was a closure-thing – good for me as a veteran, good therapy to spend a lot of time with that footage. I think it helped me adjust. It was a lot of reflection, a way for me to get my feelings out in public, and it was well-received, luckily!" says the janitor turned Germanophile, turned soldier, turned artist.

Add waiter. To pay the rent throughout college, he waited tables at the Ninety-Nine Restaurant, a job he could leave after graduation when a marketing firm in Hampton hired him as a graphic designer, a position that led to a year of freelancing and other jobs in hot marketing companies.

He also said good-bye to the military, if not to his unit mates, a tight corps of Iraq veterans with whom he mountain-biked and hung out on weekends. But something was missing.

"I don't want to say that [working in businesses] was pointless, but it lacked flavor," says Tuscher, searching for a way to be uncharacteristically philosophical.

"I missed having a purpose bigger than making one man rich."

That unshakable blandness propelled him into a nine-month federal hiring process after learning, during a trip to see a Guard buddy in Washington, that the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) was looking to hire vets with his skills.

The newly repurposed VA, energized by the innumerable needs of a million new veterans and increasing wherewithal to serve them, desperately needed communicators like Tuscher.

“For someone like meā€¦this is sort of like getting drafted into the NFL.”

Today, he's a new media technologist for the VA's online communications team. "I'm actually helping people I really care about, who need it, getting the message out about veterans' benefits, veterans' issues, and getting vets who can use the VA to come to us. They earned it. And it's here for them."

Battling a stigma among veterans, the VA is going all-out to change its image.

"It's exciting to be part of that team," Tuscher says. "We're at the top of the organization as far as messaging and public affairs. I'm still in shock, though. Every day I come to work and pinch myself because I can look out the window and see the White House across the street.

"The other night I went to happy hour with friends, to a place right near the office, and we got locked into the bar because Michelle Obama was having her birthday dinner nearby. It's inspiring," says Tuscher. "I'm overseeing big contractors and I want to make sure the taxpayers' money is helping veterans the best way possible. For someone like me, what I went to school for, doing what I was doing, this is sort of like getting drafted into the NFL. When I got out of the Guard, I was kind of done with the military, but as time went on, I missed something."

He missed his team; he missed the flavor.

"And now I know what it really was," he says. "I missed serving."

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