Pilot climbs to new heights after life in war

Former Capt. Johnathan Heller attends UMHB as a pre-med student. As a 28-year-old who already has a Bachelor of Science in history and is married, he is far from the average college student.

Before coming to the university he spent nine and one-half years in the Army and did a tour in Iraq as an Apache helicopter pilot. Also, he substitute teaches and volunteers at an emergency room in his spare time. He is a man driven to excellence.

His age and maturity set him apart from his peers. In class, he is considered the classroom genius. He read the textbook three times over for his zoology class.

Classmate Sarah Davidson, a sophomore Cell Biology major said, “I wish I had his brain power.”

Graduate student and former captain Johnathan Heller stands outside Metroplex Hospital emergency room where he volunteers. Heller is taking pre-med classes after resigning from the Army at Fort Hood. He plans to return to the military. Photo by Ethan Mitra

Heller has an inspiring childhood story. He was born in 1982 in Dallas. When he was just 5 years old his parents divorced. He and his mother moved to Indianapolis, where they lived in a trailer. Growing up in that atmosphere was not easy. Even as a child, he was driven to academic excellence. He wrote a 32-page paper for a fifth grade assignment on the nervous system.

While growing up in Indianapolis, Heller became close to his grandfather. They spent summers together fishing, going on drives and hiking. His grandfather, a World War II veteran, was an influential figure in his life.

“The one thing I take to heart from him is this: he said the entire purpose of his life was me, his children and grandchildren. He did everything for his family.” Heller said.

As a child, Heller had three goals: to be a doctor, a pilot and an officer in the military. His life seemed to be heading in that direction but, at the age of 16, something happened that changed the course of his future. He came home one day from school and found his home empty. His mother had abandoned him.

It was one of the toughest moments in his life. He had to drop out of school in order to survive; consequently, he never finished high school. He got a job as a night stocker at a grocery store, working 80 hours a week just to survive.

“You stop caring about AP classes and start caring about the rent,” Heller said.

The only escape he saw to his borderline homelessness was joining the military. At the age of 18, he applied to the Naval Academy. After receiving his congressional appointment, he was turned down during his medical screening process because of an incorrectly perceived bee allergy. Heller described the experience as “crushing.”

He did not let rejection deter him from his goal. Only a week after receiving his rejection letter, he enlisted in the Army and convinced them that he was not allergic to bees.

Once in the military, he worked at pursuing excellence and finished basic training at the top of his class. After that, he did Advanced Individual Training and was stationed at Fort Sill, Okla.

It was there where Heller met a very young looking Black Hawk helicopter pilot who told him that if he was interested in aviation, he could be a crew chief.

In his mind Heller thought, “No, I can be a pilot.”

His next step was to apply to Warrant Officer Candidate School. WOC School was one of Heller’s favorite experiences in the military. Not surprisingly, he graduated at the top of his class.

Around this time he also began taking college classes. He managed the tough feat of balancing his college schedule and the military by testing out of as many classes as he could.

In just one weekend, he was able to test out of 18 hours of college classes.

Throughout his college career he attended several different universities, including Cameron University, University of North Texas, Indiana University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Surprisingly, it only took him three and a half years to complete his degree.

“In retrospect, I thought I was going to go to the Naval Academy to become an officer and a pilot and finish college, and I ended up being an officer, a pilot and finishing college faster than if I had gone to the Naval Academy while working full time.” Heller said.

After finishing WOC School, he was stationed in Germany for two years. He applied to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga., to be a commissioned officer. He graduated as a Distinguished Military Graduate.

Upon graduation, one of his commanders from Germany requested him to command a platoon of Apache helicopters in Iraq. He moved to Fort Hood, Texas, and shipped off six months later.

His tour in Iraq was successful. He took a platoon of Apaches to Iraq and was air mission commander for 100 missions. His platoon did not take any casualties. In fact, the only damage sustained was to his own aircraft. After his tour, he was stationed at Fort Hood as a member of the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade.

He resigned from the Army in 2010 in order to pursue a degree in medicine, and he is taking his pre-med classes at UMHB.

Fellow soldier and pre-med student Capt. Jennifer Bohannan respects Heller.

She said, “I think John should be surgeon general of the Army. He has got the potential to succeed.”

“I don’t know if it’s beyond anyone’s expectations because I think everyone expects him to succeed.”

Once he gets his medical degree, he plans on returning to the military as a flight surgeon, and he cannot wait.

Heller said, “It is painful and I miss it. I have my uniform sitting in my closet. It has my captain bars and all the wings and everything on it, and that’s me. That’s what I do.”

Author: Ethan Mitra

Bio info coming soon!

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