Retirement Closes a Chapter of Vietnam
Saturday, July 2, 2005
On his final day at work, the last enlisted active-duty Vietnam veteran in the U.S. Marine Corps sat in a fancy chair in a white-paneled, brass-chandeliered room, his hands clasped, his expression restrained, four rows of ribbons pinned to his chest.
Master Sgt. Randall Arnold, who retired with a small regulation ceremony at Quantico Marine Corps Base yesterday, learned many things during nearly 30 years in the Corps, not the least of which was how to control his emotions.
So he was stoic facing the crowd of dozens there to see him off -- his family, his colleagues and the best friend who tried to wrestle him to the ground when he went to enlist at a recruiting office on Pennsylvania Avenue back in 1969.
He was calm when base commanding officer Col. James M. Lowe stood up and thanked him for doing his part -- for training probably thousands of Marines around the world. He made it through the flag and shadow box presentation. He made it almost to the end, when "The Marines' Hymn" came over a loudspeaker, and everyone stood. His forehead wrinkled and his mouth strained, and then, suddenly, it was over -- the crowd applauded, then loosened, gathering around plastic trays of cookies and fruit set up at the back of Harry Lee Hall.
"I thought he was going to break down there, but he did pretty good," said the best friend, Roy Sedgwick of Clinton, who back in 1969 had acted out of concern for Arnold's safety. "He still loves the Marine Corps."
Arnold's wife, Kim, hugged him and wondered, she said, about his transition to civilian life in Stafford County, noting that he recently referred to the shower as a "rain locker."
As people shook his hand, Arnold, 54, a soft-spoken man of Cherokee ancestry, said he was going to consider these first four days a long weekend rather than retirement. Even as a kid growing up in the District, he said, he knew he wanted to join the military.
He watched such war movies as "They Were Expendable" and "Never So Few." His older brother was a Marine, and he once tried on the dress blues hanging in his closet and thought he looked pretty good. He had a romanticized view of what it meant to be a soldier -- travel and adventure and adrenaline -- and decided to enlist in the Marines, volunteering for Vietnam.
It's an experience he'll say little about now.
"It was hot and a little dusty. . . ," he said. "I lost three buddies I trained with. . . . And that's all I'm going to say about that."
After Vietnam, Arnold served two years in the Reserves, three in the National Guard and four out of the military, repairing security systems, installing telephones, dispatching forklifts. It was not for him. "I missed the uniform," he said.
So he came back. He served in action in Grenada and Somalia and trained Marines at Quantico; Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Camp Pendleton, Calif.; and Okinawa, among other places.
He never wanted to be an officer, he said, because he never wanted to distance himself that much from the rank and file. Instead, he taught other enlisted men and women how to lead, how to follow and how to navigate a rubber boat across a dark ocean and rappel down the side of cliff.
He would miss things like that, he said on his own, personal independence day.
"I liked teaching them," he said. "Being a mentor to them."
Later yesterday, Arnold drove across the base to the Command Post Pub, shared an O'Doul's with a few colleagues and paged through a thick scrapbook of certificates, awards, a rubbing of his three friends' names from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, group pictures of his comrades over the years.
"This is Okinawa in 1995," he said, turning the pages. "Coronado, 1995."
"This is Mario. This is Troy. This is Amy. . . ."
Then Randall Arnold, a civilian now, went to his office and collected the last of his things.