Community remembers Cmdr. Christopher Joas
From his role as senior flight surgeon at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) to riding with the Longhorns Search and Rescue team to being a doting father of four sons and keeping a strong tie with his own family, Joas made a mark.
Joas’ death in a single-engine airplane crash on July 7 near Meyers, Calif., sent a shockwave through the Navy community and to those who knew the 53-year-old career officer. The plane he was piloting crashed after takeoff from the South Lake Tahoe Airport killing him on impact and good friend Peggy Snider McGuire, a 51-year-old former Fallon businesswoman who died several days later in the Intensive Care Unit at Renown Regional Medical in Reno. The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board will conduct an investigation into the cause of the crash.
Member of the team
“He brought a sense of family and team to both medical and the Longhorns,” said Cmdr. Zathan Baker, Naval Air Station Fallon’s operations officer.
Learning of both Joas’ and McGuire’s deaths has been difficult for Baker and his wife, Melissa. The Bakers knew the couple socially and personally for the past three years. Zathan Baker first met Joas three years ago when he arrived at NAWDC. Joas possessed a character trait that caught Baker’s attention almost immediately, thus leading to a close friendship.
“He definitely had an adventurous spirt before I even met him,” Baker said.
Although Joas attended medical school after completing flight school at Pensacola years before, it was that love of adventure, flying and medicine that made Joas the unique physician in the sky. Baker said Joas enjoyed flying with the Longhorns and was involved with the team on a daily basis. It was easy to call Yoas part of the Longhorns’ flight crew.
The first time, though, Baker heard of Yoas wanting to fly with a rescue crew came before the naval physician arrive in Fallon.
“I was down in San Diego, and I got a call asking if I could help with getting him into the repel school,” Baker recalled. “This is what we put all of our crewmen through to repel out of the aircraft to get into difficult zones. The school is like, ‘Who is this commander med guy and why does he want to go through our airman repel school?’”
Baker said as a flight surgeon, Joas needed the training to be able to fly with Search and Rescue crews and treat any patients. Joas had previous experience as an aviator but not in a helicopter. He was a radar interceptor officer like “Goose” from the first “Top Gun” movie. Baker said Joas flew before attending medical.
“He went to repel school at HSC 3 (Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron THREE) in San Diego before joining our team,” Baker said.
Tight-knit Navy family
“When I think about Papa Doc I remember how involved he was with the SAR Team when no one was telling him he had to be,” said Lt. Cary Lawson. “He became part of our tight-knit family. He immediately became rappel-qualified and asked to go through a rescue syllabus in order to maximize his contribution on rescues. All of that training made him better able to understand and advocate for our rescue aircrewmen and the physical demands of their job.”
Lawson won’t forget July 2019. The Longhorns received a call about a man stranded on a steep cliff. Lawson said the rescue was the most technical one the Longhorns did in recent history because it occurred on a night when the SAR was already out conducting technical rappel training with Joas aboard.
“We got the call and made it to the incident pretty quickly,” Lawson said. “Our rescuer rappelled down the cliff and eventually hoisted the survivor into the cabin to a waiting Papa Doc. He provided in-flight care to a critically injured survivor while we rushed to Renown. It was definitely nice to have him there.”
When Joas arrived in Fallon, he worked directly for NAWDC as a flight surgeon and was put in charge of the military treatment center. Joas also filled the role of flight surgeon with the approve of former Rear Adm. Greg Harris before he departed Fallon in September 2017.
“As the ranking medical provider on base, he played a pivotal role in making sure we are healthy and remain on mission,” said Capt. S.T. Hejmanowski, NAWDC deputy commander. “Even other bases in the region would rely on his expertise. He also often helped coordinate the medical care of the carrier air wings that are constantly training at Fallon.”
Hejmanowski said Joas helped coordinate the medical care of the carrier air wings that came to Fallon for their training. He said Joas possessed a understanding in delivering care to the aviators that trained at NAWDC.
Friend and businesswoman
Melissa Baker said Joas took the time to care for both the Longhorns’ crew and their families if a medical need arose.
“He always took the extra time,” she said. “No one expects a doctor to do that. Chris was the big heart of the (Longhorns) family.”
Joas and McGuire dated “off and on” said Melissa.
“They were rekindling at least a friendship,” she said. “They were spending more time together.”
Melissa said McGuire’s oldest son flew to Nevada to handle his mother’s affairs when she was still a patient in ICU.
Baker was also there when McGuire opened 8 Pieces of 8, a boutique shop on South Taylor Street. Not only did she spend time at McGuire’s shop, but McGuire and Joas also came other to the Baker’s house. Melissa also sensed a closeness to Joas.
“Chris was a part of our family. He was the brother I never had,” she said.
Melissa said Joas would give the shirt off his back to a stranger and thought both he and McGuire possessed a lighter side to their relationship.
“Peggy had a very fierce spirit,” Melissa said “She loved sarcasm and loved comedy, and so did Chris,” she said. “The two of them were comedy junkies.”
Lucy Carnahan, director of the Fallon Chamber of Commerce, first met McGuire in late 2017. After Thanksgiving, Carnahan said McGuire attended Small Business Saturday and not long afterward, the chamber conducted a ribbon cutting for 8 Pieces of 8 on Dec. 16 with Mayor Ken Tedford.
“She became quite a member of our community,” Carnahan said.
Between Joas and McGuire, they had seven sons — he had four boys, and McGuire three. On one occasion, Carnahan said McGuire wanted to bring her two youngest boys to Rotary (Club) bingo. When the boys won prizes, Carnahan said they would give them to the other who person involved with the game who liked it. Carnahan said McGuire raised her sons with big hearts.
McGuire left Fallon in May 2019 when she closed her shop and relocated to Reno. Carnahan said she kept in contact with several friends and also told her about a new dog park in Reno.
Dr. Tedd McDonald and his wife Rachel also knew both Joas and McGuire.
“Chris moved in next door to me about a year and a half ago,” McDonald said. “I remember him aerating the lawn, re-edging it. His dad came out and made sure it was in the best shape possible.”
Soon afterward, McDonald said one of Joas’ sons travelled to Fallon to visit his father.
McDonald considers it a coincidence the two men lived next to each other. Both were physicians, and Joas expressed an interest in emergency medicine. When the sun began to set, McDonald said they would sit in the front yard several times a week and visit, talking about medicine, general things their children and plans for the future.
“He enjoyed working in Fallon,” McDonald said, remembering McGuire also accompanied him on a few occasions. “It was a privilege to meet someone with that energetic kind of spirit. He lived his life up front.”
McDonald said the two couples attended a Roaring 20s event last New Year’s Eve at the William N. Pennington Life Center. He said the couples had a good time, and both Joas and McGuire had an upbeat, funny side.
Both the civilian and military communities faced the coronavirus pandemic in March, and McDonald and Joas both served on a panel working to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 in Churchill County. The rapid spread of the virus concerned the Navy.
“Over the last several months dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, his level-headedness, knowledge and calmness in the face of a storm were particularly apparent,” Hejmanowski said. “I credit him in large part to NAWDC’s ability to continue providing uninterrupted training to the fleet despite the unique challenges of today’s operating environment.”
McDonald said working with the Navy was important for the panel because Joas provided or exchanged information that was up-to-date and relevant. According to McDonald, Joas was concerned with the health and welfare of both the nation and community.
Michael Joas has a number of stories covering a lifetime. Michael, who is older than Chris by four years, lives in the Albuquerque suburb of Rio Rancho. He said his brother was very loving and loved his four sons.
When both boys were younger, they lived at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany when their father was in the military, but because of their ages, they never attended the same schools. After the tour ended, they returned to the states and landed in the Denver area. Both graduated from Gateway High School in Aurora.
Michael said he never followed the college path out of high school like Chris, who attended Western State College in Gunnison, Colo. He said his brother became a proficient skier and entered the Navy after graduation. Michael said one of their funniest stories between them occurred almost 40 years ago and involved skiing. He said Chris was either 15 or 16 years old. Michael was in his late teens.
“We took the ski train to Winter Park. I told him to meet me at 3:30 p.m. because the train left at 4,” Michael said.
Chris wanted to take one more run down the hill, but Michael told his brother he would be late. Chris didn’t listen and skied one more time.
“We missed the train,” Michael said. “We got a ride back to the train station in Denver, and it was minus 22 degrees.”
Michael said Chris thought the incident was funny.
Yet, as the years progressed, they developed a much closer bond. Michael said Chris learned to snowboard and always wanted to be the best.
“He later ran a marathon,” Michael said. “He pushed himself in everything he did.”
When Chris’ plane crashed two weeks ago, Michael said he was surprised. He said his brother was meticulous and wanted to ensure everything was “just right.”
Michael said Chris loved search and rescue and flying.
“That was his passion,” he said. “His favorite movie in the world was ‘Top Gun.’”
After the Navy began to phase out the F-14 Tomcats, he said Chris made the decision to attend medical school and graduated from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Michael said Chris had to resign his commission, and after medical school re-enlist as an ensign.
Ernest Joas said his son graduated from officer candidate school at Pensacola, Fla., and “sweet talked” himself into the F-14. During his time on the aircraft carrier USS America, Ernest said Chris and the pilot successfully landed the aircraft on the carrier top with one engine out.
“It was a perfect landing,” Ernest said.
After medical school and residency, Ernest and Angela followed his career from being assigned to the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine (AIRTEVRON NINE, The Vampires); Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Center at Bridgeport, Calif.; and NAWDC. Ernest also gave his son sound advice: “Find a good NCO (non-commissioned officer), be adopted and hang on.”
When Ernest and Angela visited Chris in Fallon, they met McGuire.“I liked her,” he said.” I thought she was an intelligent match. He liked somebody to challenge his mind.”