When Joshua Gray was in high school, he described himself simply as a "knucklehead."

Since then he has come to be known by several more prestigious monikers. Try first responder, war hero and top-flight student.

The 26-year-old Independence resident and student at Metropolitan Community College-Blue River has come a long way in the last 10 years, and it appears that he is still climbing the ladder of success.

Gray, who is working toward his associate engineering degree, was recently named one of just 20 members in the nation for the 2018 Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society All-USA Academic Team, the most prestigious scholarship in the nation for a student at a two-year college. He was also named a 2018 New Century Transfer Pathway Scholar representing Missouri. He has earned $7,250 in scholarship money, including $5,000 for the All-USA honor, to further his educational goals.

Not bad for someone who refers to his younger self as a "knucklehead."

"I was somewhat of a knucklehead in high school. I didn't really pay attention. My teachers always told me I had 'wasted potential.' ... I just decided after a while, 'Well, I am kind of dragging my feet,' and I'm underperforming to my capabilities. At that point I was like, 'Let me try to do something now. Let me try to actually make an effort to do something.'"

That something has led Gray on an incredible journey of self-discovery, which has provided a foundation for likely future success.

Fire fights

At age 16 while in high school in Maryland, the Kansas City native and self-described "nomad" (his father is a U.S. Navy pilot now stationed in Italy) decided to join the volunteer fire department.

An admitted "thrill seeker," "I joined the volunteer fire department for the thrill of running into a burning building. It was also a more visceral way that I was able to make a tangible difference," Gray said.

Always more comfortable using his hands, he considered joining a full-time fire department. But he was seeking a bigger challenge.

So he joined the Marine Corps and was sent to boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, immediately after he graduated in 2010 from Leonardtown High School in Maryland.

When he took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery – kind of like an ACT or placement test for military – he scored 94 of 99, which would allow him to do nearly anything he wanted in the Marines.

But liking challenges, Gray thought otherwise.

"My recruiter was like, 'You're going to want to go into intel, right?'" Gray recalled. "I was like, 'No, put me on the front lines.' I wanted to be able to say I made it. A, I would be making more of a difference, and B, I would have ... something that you can actually carry with pride. A lot of people say they have a love for the flag, but until you actually get out there, you can say I earned that love for the flag."

First trained in artillery, he wanted to be a part of the infantry that was headed for the war in Afghanistan to earn that love for the flag.

He was deployed along with his division at Kajaki Dam, Afghanistan, from October 2011 to May 2012 as minesweeper and point man of a rifle company on the front lines.

On his second patrol there, his platoon leader, a staff sergeant, stepped on an IED, lost both legs and an arm, and died in the helicopter while being evacuated.

Gray said that his experience as a firefighter helped him deal with the stress in Afghanistan.

"Adversity wasn't anything new to me when I joined the Marine Corps. I had actually already been in austere, high-stress situations," he said. "The horror stories you hear about deployment happened to my unit. ... But I could take it in stride. I could eat all the stress and keep moving."

During down time in Afghanistan, he would pass the time by talking, but it wasn't typical soldier talk. He was going on about science or philosophy, and even regaled his fellow troops about the Mars One Project, the habitation of another planet.

"A lot of my buddies would tell me, 'Hey, you're too smart for the Marine Corps. Why do you want to be out here with us knuckle-draggers?'" Gray said.

He found a science magazine on his base, and it had an article about prostheses, and he had another idea.

"I thought at first I wanted to be career military, like join special forces or counter-intelligence," he said. "But I wanted another challenge. As much as I wanted to stay in, I thought I could help them more with something like this. I made up my mind when I got out I was going to go to college."

Using his mind

After disarming countless explosive devices and leading his rifle company, he continued working as a range coach until he left the military in 2014.

He made his way back to the Kansas City area, found an apartment in Independence, and started working two full-time jobs, one as a security guard and one at Home Depot, over the next year.

Then he started looking around for a college. He decided on Blue River, which was close to his home, was more affordable than a four-year school. He also had heard that community colleges are a good way for adults to transition back into education. So he enrolled at Blue River in the fall of 2015.

He took a placement test, and it showed he needed to take some developmental math classes first. After breezing through two of those, he aced college algebra. Soon, if he didn't get a perfect score on a test, he would ask his instructor, George Green, "Why not?"

"Once I realized that I could do that, I really didn't expect anything less of myself," Gray said.

Now he is a full-time student with a 4.0 grade point average, taking classes such as Calculus 2, calculus-based physics and chemistry. In addition, he holds down a full-time job in security, is president of the Blue River chapter of Phi Theta Kappa and is heavily involved in martial arts.

"His goal was to have a perfect score on very assignment," Green said. "He was the first student who averaged between 98 percent and 100 percent on every assignment in my class.”

That has led him to winning the scholarships, which he still is trying to comprehend along with his advisers, who have never had a Blue River student earn that prestigious of an award.

"I didn't realize the magnitude of it. It didn't really set in. (My advisers) Cheryl Winter and Dee Mathison were practically doing somersaults, saying, 'Oh my gosh, this is amazing. We've never had a student get this high before.' ... Even though I analytically recognize the magnitude, that only 20 students in the whole nation, or whole world really, get this, that it's the single most prestigious scholarship a two-year school can offer, it's actually starting to set in, and it's like, 'Dude.'"

He will travel to Dallas in April to receive his award at the American Association of Community Colleges Conference.

Future plans

Gray plans to use his scholarship money to study mechanical engineering with a biomedical minor at a four-year school. At first he thought he would attend Missouri or Missouri S&T in Rolla, but now he has his sights set on MIT. He also said he'll apply to Stanford and most Ivy League schools as well.

He then plans to get a master's degree in biomedical engineering and one day want to own his own research-and-development company, making robotic prostheses and possibly electric neurons for the brain to help his injured military comrades.

"I want to be able to tell those guys, 'You can walk again, you can see again, you can hold your daughter again.'" he said.

Looking back to his "knucklehead" days, though, Gray says he's happy he had those experiences. Is he surprised at how far he's come?

"Yes, actually," he said. "But I don't regret anything. Regrets mold us and make us who we are. Most of the people I know who are top-line students came from somewhere, but they don't have the drive to get better because they're used to having everything. The ones who came from nothing are the hungriest. So I don't regret anything. I don't regret the fact that I was a knucklehead in high school because that gave me a different perspective. It gave me perspective that I could go from that to firefighter to Marine to biomedical engineering student to hopefully a business owner, the dynamic and versatility of having all those different experiences – for being literally a different person at each stage of my life – gives me a whole different perspective on life that I relish.”

"To answer your question, I am surprised I got this far. ... But my surprise isn't going to stop me from climbing."