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NJ paratrooper who died in base accident survived Afghanistan, had a ‘fighting spirit’

Fort Bragg (Fort Bragg/Released)

Like any military mother, Rachel Joskowitz was worried sick when her son was deployed to Afghanistan in 2017. It was especially unnerving when the Army ordered “blackouts” and he couldn’t call home, and she could only wonder what danger he was facing in the desert.

“I thought if anything happened to him it’d be in Afghanistan,” she said, but Sgt. Matthew Joskowitz made it back safe.

That’s what makes it even harder to process that her 24-year-old son lost his life not in war but in a tragic accident Oct. 31 at his base at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, she said. The U.S. Army said the accident was not training-related and remains under investigation.

On Wednesday while driving back from Fort Bragg to their home in Fairview, Rachel Joskowitz and her daughter, Alyssa Joskowitz, said they heard nothing but the highest praise from Joskowitz’ commanders and fellow soldiers.

“I was always so proud of him and everything he did,” she said. “Hearing all that, my heart is just overflowing.”

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Matthew Joskowitz — “Matty J” to his hometown friends in Bergen County and “Josko” to his platoon — was in the 2nd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, officials said.

In interviews Wednesday, his family, best friend and former wrestling coaches said Joskowitz was a driven and honorable young man who loved to help his friends and keep everyone laughing. He may have joked around a lot, but his coaches said he was always 100% focused and competitive when it came time to hit the mat.

“He was not always the biggest kid, but he had the heart of the biggest guy,” said Tommy Piccinich, who has been a close friends of Joskowitz when they were 3 years old.

Now a Fairview police officer, Piccinich said that if Joskowitz would want to be remembered for something, it would be his “fighting spirit.”

“He never backed down, no matter what he was dealing with. He’d never give up,” he said.

Joskowitz learned the day before he died that he was being promoted to staff sergeant, and talked to family members and former coaches about the good news. “His command said it’s rare for someone just 24 years old to be in that position but he just moved up the ranks so quickly,” his mother said.

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His sister, Alyssa, said her big brother was protective and caring, giving her life advice in between rough-housing and prank-pulling. “He made me the tough person I am,” she said.

He always wanted to be in the military, even though he was offered a college wrestling scholarship. He loved the Army, his work and the camaraderie he found at Fort Bragg. His uncle, David Joskowitz, said his nephew’s small unit did reconnaissance work and was extremely close.

“He found his home down there,” he said.

David Joskowitz and his wife, Brie, also went to Fort Bragg and mourned alongside the soldiers Joskowitz considered his brothers.

“From what we heard from them, it wasn’t just his unit, he was well-known throughout the brigade,” David Joskowitz said. “People came from out of state to have a drink with us and tell us stories about him.”

They said “Josko” was a leader and always helping out his fellow soldiers if they were struggling with a training or needed guidance. He lived his life with integrity and strong morals, Piccinich said, and he wanted to help everyone around him to do the same and reach their full potential.

“He was always there to talk to you,” Piccinich said, if you needed to “get your head right” or a reminder of what was important.

He recalled Joskowitz’ commitment to wrestling, even as a kid. It set him up for another competitive career in the Army, where he competed in an MMA-style sport the Army called Combatives. He won his combative division tournament the last two years, his uncle said.

At Cliffside Park High School, Joskowitz was a star wrestler and the first in the school’s history to win 100 matches, according to Mark Cabrera, his coach there. He said Joskowitz was an honorable young man who was always respectful. As team captain he was a “consummate leader” among his peers, Cabrera said.

“I’d never call him a kid. He was always a young adult,” Cabrera said. “He was motivated. He rose through the ranks. Nothing he did ever surprised me.”

Detective Sgt. Michael Miller of the Cliffside Park Police Department, who coached him from second grade to eighth grade, said Joskowitz was a natural wrestler. But Miller said it was Joskowitz’ character and determination that made it an honor to be his coach.

“He was the highlight of my coaching career,” Miller said.

Charlie O’Hanlon, head wrestling coach at Cliffside Park High School, said he was assistant coach when “Matty” was in school.

He recalled Joskowitz as “light-hearted, funny, and positive” — but not when he was wrestling. “On the wrestling mat you could always count on him to bring toughness and be a fierce competitor. He was really fearless,” O’Hanlon said in an email.

He said they spoke in September, when Joskowitz reached out saying there was a chance he might be stationed back in New Jersey and if that happened, he wanted to volunteer as a coach for the team.

“The first thing on his mind once he heard that he may be coming back home was that he wanted to give back to the kids of Cliffside Park,” Joskowitz said. “That is the kind of person he was.”

Cabrera said Joskowitz’ body will be flown to Newark International Airport Friday and then escorted by his entire platoon and New Jersey State Police to A.K. Macagna Funeral Home in Cliffside Park. Viewing will be at the funeral home from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, and the service will be private.

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© 2019 NJ Advance Media Group