When I was a young cadet I had a great mentor in a gentleman named Sergeant First Class Jack R. Arnold. He was a three tour, Vietnam Veteran who had served as a Radio Operator with a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP- pronounced “LURP”) Unit. His first two rows of medals were all medals for valor.
Jack was a character to say the least mesmerizing with his thick eyebrows, erect bearing and bulging muscles he seemed like he stepped from central casting to make boys into men into killing machines for the army.
He would address you with unblinking eyes and an iron voice giving you rigid commands in a machine gun staccato of verbal abuse that makes you wonder, “Is he serious?” It seems almost funny and nutty until you realize that this is really how he was, not acting a part but a man who lives “to soldier.”
He comes across when you first met him as utterly malevolent brutalizing you with his tirades and his astounding command of profanity. He crushes you at first and in time you learn he is secretly benevolent and there is a purpose behind his actions and it was to teach young men to survive the cauldron of war he lived through in Vietnam.
Jack would be unrelenting is his long, obscene abuse of the human language. His favorite was to stand at rigid and erect attention and to take his hand fully extended and chop it through the air to emphasize his point. His tirades were always drawn out descriptions of how messed up you were and the results of your stupidity and incompetence were going to, “… put young Soldiers in bodybags.”
To get an ass chewing from Jack was almost an assault of open eroticism in his description of the Soldiers he trains as “ladies,” “queers,” and “maggots.” His message was always very clear and he said to you (in effect) “By submitting to me, you will become men.” After a time you came to believe him. He was a sight to behold watching him “making corrections” on young Cadets.
August 1995, Kemper Military Junior College, Boonville, MO
The first time I ever saw Jack was when he was talking calmly to a football player. He told the boy to do pushups. The urban raised football player looked at Jack like he was some sort of alien asking him to make an obscene gesture. At this point Jack begins to pivot back and forth in his jungle boots -which are perfectly bloused into his boots with the iron creases of his uniform.
And so begins one of the greatest moments of my military career as Jack looks at the football player and says, “Son, you were brought here, to Kemper Military Junior College to play football,” without pausing for a breath, he continues, “and football is a metaphor for war!” He begins to dress down the shocked ball player, “You are a disgrace to this football program because you are not ready to be made into a warrior to fight on the gridiron. I was attempting to instruct you, but you failed in that mission as well,” like a car wreck you just couldn’t look away.
Jack then did something totally unexpected. He began to count the heads of all the people in the room. He took off his uniform top and put his feet on a table and knocked out 50 incline pushups. We all were transfixed by this awesome display Jack’s athleticism.
He cranked out those pushups like a piston in a machine and kept exhaling as he pushed up and down. After the last rep he bounced up on and looked menacingly into the eyes of the football player who just stared at Jack with his mouth open. Jack took a second to catch his breath and said, “Do you know what just happened here, son?” in a slightly malevolent tone.
The stunned jock could only shake his head back and forth not saying a word. Jack paused for a second, letting the question resounds throughout the room. I was thinking to myself, “Does he mean his yelling or those pushups?”
Jack brought out his hand in a flat arch to the boy’s chest, letting the middle finger of right hand stop dead center in the boy’s chest and said, “I will tell you what just happened here, son. I did two pushups for every person in here because it would take TWO of you to make one of ME!”
This last point he emphasized by pointing directly at himself. He would finish his verbal assault on the dimwitted jock concluding, “You boy, are an insult to your parents, to this school which has given you a scholarship to play football and most of all to yourself. I have given you a chance to prove yourself on the field of battle and you were weighed, tested and found wanting. But I, Platoon Sergeant Jack R. Arnold, will help you to become the man you need to be.”
Again, there was a pause and all these words were given the opportunity to sink in. “Now get out of my sight before I have a flashback of Vietnam you begin to get yellow skin and slant eyes.” Just like that he dismissed the chastised boy.
We all left in a hurry thoroughly impressed with our first meeting of Sergeant First Class Jack R. Arnold. As we left my buddy Julio turned to me and said, “Do you think that guy is serious?” I responded I didn’t know, but I did know was that I had found the mentor I was looking for to turn me into a Spartan.
Jack as a Mentor
Everything about Jack was intense from his workouts to his long conversations about the motives of fighting men. So much of what made him a person of almost superhuman stature in my memory has faded over time but never the lessons. He would wake up every morning at 5am and be in the gym by 530am and would lift for the next hour and half.
Every afternoon at 4pm, regardless of rain, snow and sun, he would ruck three days a week, 6 to 12 miles with a 65 pound rock. Every other day he would run 5 to 10 miles the other three days, Sunday was for Church because Jack was a heavy-duty Mormon.
In the end his body had been larded into an indomitable punishment-taker like a heavy duty truck with thick, knobby tires. With the physique of an amateur bodybuilder and the endurance of an Olympian, he was a sight to behold and emulate. What really made it impressive was, Jack was 45 years old. When most men his age were getting fat Jack almost seemed to be reversing the cycle.
He would explain this by starting every sentence with “Mr. Oto…” he would begin, because above all else I was a gentleman in training to become an Officer in the United States Army, at least the way Jack saw it. “Mr. Oto, your body is an extension of your will. You must train it the way you do men, relentless and with passion. To do this you must get the attention of men and how you do that is through the use of profanity.” I have stored up tons of Jack’s gems but you get the idea.
What I loved about Jack the most was how uncomplicated he was. He talked openly about his experiences in Vietnam calling it “.. the best time of my life. All other experiences would fail after it.” He said to me once, “You know the reason I don’t have any problems from my service in Vietnam is because I never did anything there I either regretted or was not proud of.” I came to believe his time there changed him in a lasting way.
After having been through several tours overseas I have come to understand just how profoundly such an experience does change you and haunts you for the rest of your life.
I did like one way Jack told me about his dealing with memories of Vietnam. We were running once down the Katy Trail- an interstate hiking trail that ran behind Kemper and goes all the way across Missouri.
As we were running he relayed a story to me from his third tour he looked at me and in his monotone robotic voice said, “Do you see the left side of my face, son?” I nodded that I did. He continued, “When the Marines were fighting in Hue, you know that scene from the end of the excellent war movie ‘Full Metal Jacket’?” I said yes.
We stopped running for a minute so I can tie my shoe and he looked at the far horizon, seeming to be lost in the moment of his memory. “A North Vietnamese soldier came out around a corner and caught Corporal Arnold half-stepping. He took his rifle and butt stroked me to the left side of my face collapsing the left side of my face and breaking my jaw.” I was shocked at the violence of his story.
He paused and said, “I was dazed by the blow, but through the pain I could see he was fixing his bayonet to his rifle and he was going to stab me in the guts.” I just gasped at this and asked, “Well, what did you do next?” anxious to hear what happened next. Jack simply a malevolent smile and said, “The only thing I could do. I took that rifle away from that little gook son-of-bitch and I beat him to death with.” I was left awed by the story.
In 1995 when I returned from Airborne School Jack was relieved from his job for field stripping a .45 Caliber Colt Commander in the mess hall during dinner while everyone around him continued to eat. This was the last straw in a series of outrageous acts.
Right before leaving Kemper, he simply went to the position attention and saluted me and said, “Mr. Oto, I only hope that in whatever war you fight in, that war YOUR war will be as good to you as MY war was to me.” Not really knowing how to answer Jack’s bold statement- this happened a lot- I simply saluted.
October 2008, Fort Bragg, NC
13 years later I was walking out of the PX at Fort Bragg and literally ran into Jack. He looked at me for a few seconds, smiled and said, “Mr. Oto, how are you? No doubt you have fulfilled my prophecy for you and you have had the honor and privilege of leading men in battle?” I laughed at this and smiled and told I was simply a Captain in the National Guard proudly serving while working as a school teacher full-time.
A scowl set in on his face and he asked how many tours of duty I had done overseas. I told him two, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He asked if I had been awarded any medals for valor or the Purple Heart for wounds received in closing with and killing the enemy. I laughed at that one…. same old Jack.
He didn’t look he had aged a day. You could still see he was pumping weights regularly and at nearly 60 years old, he had just completed his second tour overseas to Afghanistan. We had dinner a couple of more times while I was at Bragg and caught up and it was good to see something never change.
Jack in his tough as hickory way had never made it passed Sergeant First Class. When I asked him why, he said, “Son, a computer is only good for two things: a paperweight and a place to set off a thermite grenade. What does using a computer have to do with leading men into battle?” I smiled at his answer and was glad to see some things never change.
Jack really was a character that seemed larger than life and almost as silly as George C. Scott in “Patton” but like Patton you find his over the top act enduring and if nothing else entertaining. I never doubted Jack was what he said he was but he did sometimes seem like he was an actor playing a role, an immensely entertaining and colorful role.
Ironically, Jack’s Birthday is July 4, 1950 but if asked “when he was born again- born again hard” his answer was April 1, 1967 the day he joined the army and later was sent to Vietnam. What an answer!