For us non-prodigies, the life of a child prodigy can be rather interesting, especially when the trajectory of this musicians lands him in the Army as an interrogator in Iraq. Stephanie Chase interviews Josh Cullen.

Since about 2002 I have been teaching violin and chamber music at New York University’s Steinhardt School. My student groups this past semester included a piano trio working on the Trio in B Major by Johannes Brahms. The pianist, Joshua Cullen, is a master’s candidate who was previously unknown to me and I enjoyed working with him, appreciating not only his talent but maturity – plus the fact that he laughed at my snarky remarks to the string players. At the semester’s end, his performance in their concert impressed me enormously for its commitment, technical facility, attention to his colleagues, musicianship and power, which always remained in excellent balance with the string players.

Although Josh’s demeanor is that of a perfectly normal, intelligent young man in his early thirties, his background is anything but, and I want to share his fascinating story – and some of his music – with Stay Thirsty readers.

Cullen eventually finished his studies and decided to make a bit of a career shift.

As time went on, I felt less and less relevant, and finally, when it was time to graduate, I knew I needed to make choices to make an impact in my life. The American Red Cross in New York might not have needed me but the army was happy to put me to work. I joined initially as a translator, learning Korean for a year and a half before learning that my first deployment would be to Iraq, not to Korea. Although my degrees were in music, the army saw that I had a master’s degree and quickly promoted me to the rank of sergeant and had me oversee interrogations at a detention facility in Tikrit, Iraq for my first assignment. The learning curve was steep and the adjustment to the culture of the U.S. military was challenging, but after a couple of years I developed “competence” (one of my favorite army buzz words) and, as a result, promotions and an improved quality of life.

The reason I stayed in for nearly twelve years was mainly because there was always the promise of doing more, and for the first eight years, there was always the threat of being called back involuntarily (everyone who joins the U.S. military incurs an eight-year military service obligation). By the time I left the army I had been promoted to Sergeant First Class (the pay grade for which is E-7, E-9 being the highest within the enlisted rank structure).