Special to washingtonpost.com
Sunday, March 19, 2006 12:00 AM
Chris Arndt, a native of Hickory, N.C., joined the Reserves during his freshman year at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, shortly after the invasion of Iraq. He served in Iraq from March 14, 2004, to March 28, 2005, based just north of the Kuwait border.
"It really started after Sept. 11," Arndt says. "I felt I needed to join the military as a personal conviction. I didn't make a concrete decision based on Iraq. It wasn't a political reason. It was that there were people putting themselves in harm's way to defend my freedom. I didn't feel comfortable about sitting back and letting them do that for me. It was a decision I had wanted to make for a long time."
When he signed up, Arndt said he knew he was likely to be put on active duty quickly. "We really didn't have a good feeling then of how this was going to play out. People thought we'd go in [to Iraq] and get out really quick. I don't think people were prepared for occupation."
But once in Iraq, Arndt said he found himself afraid and on edge. He anticipated seeing lots of combat, but that wound up not being the case. Arndt's job in Iraq consisted of driving large military trucks.
"Sometimes we'd run at night, sometimes at day. We tried not to be predictable. We carried anything from supplies to ammo to vehicles. Every mission was different. You'd basically have to go 24 hours without any sleep while you were on the road. Or sometimes you'd get there and you'd have a hot meal and you'd get time to relax. Usually the sleep wasn't too bad. We would get between 4 to 5 hours a night while we were on the road."
Arndt said he completed 26 missions, coming under enemy fire only five times. "We would document every time and analyze. Those five times were more than enough for me. I would have been just fine if I never once had to fire my weapon in combat. To me, it felt the same as doing it in training. Nothing went through my head that I was firing at a real person this time. It didn't bother me on an emotional level. You did have a sense that it was for real. It would come to me, this is what I trained for, this is what I signed up to do. I'm actually doing this."
Arndt was frustrated by the inability to anticipate insurgent small-arms fire or makeshift bombs. "A lot of what we'd come under contact with was improvised explosive devices. You can't do anything about them. It was just luck, if it would hit you or not. That was tough. That was very, very frustrating. We felt like we should be able to defeat everybody. To have all this power, and to feel like it was being wasted. Someone could spend $75 to put an IED on the side of the road and wipe out a $200,000 Humvee."
His contact with Iraqis left him with a good impression of the Arab culture, Arndt said. "It surprised me how courteous and polite they were to us. We did encounter the bad as well as good. But they're really not that different than westerners. They care about the same things. They love in the same ways. They take care of their kids in the same way."
One experience with an Iraqi family left its mark on Arndt. "We were stopped on a side of the road for a flat tire in a pretty tranquil area in southern Iraq. There was a lot of marsh area and farmland. There was this farm house. A man and boy came out of the house. I had some M&Ms. I saw the little kid. The dad was several yards off watching. So I gave the kid a pack of M&Ms and a can of Chef Boyardee. They went into the house, and I didn't think anything of it. But a while later he came back out with a little Iraqi flag and gave it to us. There wasn't much verbal contact, but through our body language, we had a very friendly non-verbal exchange there. That little small exchange of gifts, it touched me. It made me feel better about being around them."
A short conversation with an Iraqi National Guardsman also had an effect on Arndt. "I asked him why he was in the Iraqi National Guard. He said his family had been persecuted under Saddam Hussein. He had vivid memories of what it was like to live under that era. The Iraqi National Guard, they're targeted every day by their own people. They're in a tougher position than we are. He wanted to join so he could have a way to protect his family. I connected with that . that was the same thought process I went through to join the military. I really admired and respected that about him."
The war experience made Arndt do some inner-reflecting and gave him a greater appreciation for what he has in America. "The experience gave me an appreciation for everything that I have. When I left for over there, I was a pretty selfish person. I didn't realize everything I have and how much better we have it than the rest of the world. When I got back, I could see everything we had -- like grass. The first time we got back, it was 3 a.m. and it was raining a little bit. You could smell the grass, I hadn't smelled that smell for a year. It hit me and made me realize I was home."
It also made him think differently about his relationships with family and my friends. "I think I'm better friend and a better son and a better citizen of the world because I went over there, because I gained that appreciation for what really matters in the world. You don't know if tomorrow will be here. You don't know how long you have. You have to be the best person you can, while you can."
-- As told to Washington Post reporter Rosalind Helderman