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Air Force Reserve pilot, grounded after medical diagnosis, returns to the sky: ‘Everyone can be resilient’


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    MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota (WCCO) — An Air Force Reserve pilot is proud to be flying again after being disqualified to serve due to a medical condition.

Lt. Col. Josh Nelson overcame obstacles to get back in the cockpit as a C130 instructor pilot.

“The great thing about what we do is the people who are there want to be there, we all choose to serve,” Nelson said.

He’s done five deployments in his 21 years with the Air Force, and he’s currently a full-time C130 instructor pilot with the Air Force Reserves.

“There’s no greater honor and responsibility than, you know, being given the keys to the C130,” Nelson said.

But that world changed in late 2017.

“Out of nowhere, with no family history or any background on it whatsoever, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, which falls underneath the umbrella of inflammatory bowel disease,” Nelson said. “And that disease just, it beats you up. I was afraid to eat at times because I was afraid of the pain that it would cause.”

He was grounded from flying. Ulcerative colitis is a disqualifying condition in the Air Force. He started taking medications. Two surgeries followed. His family was always by his side.

“An ileostomy is pretty much, I don’t have a colon anymore, so I have an appliance stuck to my abdomen and it’s pretty much my small intestine that comes through my abdominal wall, and so that’s where my waste, my output comes through,” Nelson said.

Once healthier, and confident in how he could manage his condition, his attention turned to returning to work. For two years, he worked with his surgeon at M Health Fairview’s University of Minnesota Medical Center, Dr. Wolfgang Gaertner.

“There was a lot of steps that we had to go through. It took me a while to understand like aeronautics, and just like differences in pressures for example, to understand how his body would react to, you know, those physical demands,” Gaertner said.

Nelson says he had to try, and they gave it their all.

“The idea was to send the best package forward so when that package landed on that desk, it would be difficult for them to rule against me, mentally, physically,” Nelson said.

In late 2019, the pilot received a waiver to fly again, teaching him if you don’t try, you can’t succeed.

“Everyone can be resilient. Everyone can bounce back if they’re given that opportunity, and that second chance, which is what I think I truly was given, was a second chance and an opportunity to be able to return,” Nelson said.

He believes he may be the first pilot in the country to return to flying after an ileostomy.

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