A Hero Among Us

December 2011/January 2012 View more

This young Neuqua grad moves forward with a new mission: to serve his fellow veterans


By: Carlos Briceño

Roadside bombs were part of the scenery for Sgt. Zach Arnold when he served in Iraq, something that he and his fellow soldiers encountered all too frequently. But none was as deadly as the one that blew up on May 31, 2007.

Arnold, a 2004 graduate of Neuqua Valley High School, was part of a convoy that was heading to the outskirts of Mosul after being stranded for three days at a forward operating base because of a sandstorm. It was nighttime. Arnold was in the lead position, traveling in an armored security vehicle, which he described as a “tank on wheels.” Everything was going great, he said, until a sandstorm kicked up again. At the same time, another convoy was heading in their direction. The lights coming toward him and the swirling sand made it very difficult to see, so his vehicle drove slowly, when—suddenly—it hit a small, improvised explosive device (IED). But their vehicle continued, and about 15 meters later, it hit another IED—a much deadlier one.

“The first one was a distraction,” he says. “It was like a diversion. The second was the big one. The second one was the kill shot. It was, we later found out, an anti-tank mine that was augmented with C4 explosives, and they had buried it in a pothole.”

The blast lifted his vehicle, which was now on fire, about five to six feet in the air and ripped through his left leg, just below the knee.

When the burning vehicle finally stopped, the three trapped soldiers in it, including Arnold, tried to get out. Armored security vehicles have an excellent built-in system to fight fires, he says, which helped prevent him from becoming engulfed in flames. The other two men in the vehicle made it out alive. But because he only had use of one leg, Arnold had major trouble. What saved him was the arrival of two friends who were in the vehicle behind him; they helped Arnold squeeze through the small hatch and then they dragged him away. About 20 seconds later, the vehicle blew up. (It was packed with about 2,000 rounds of 50-caliber ammunition, 100 gallons of diesel fuel, and grenades, he says.)

A medevac helicopter soon arrived. Arnold suffered a mild concussion, injuries to his lower back, and he lost part of his left leg. Ironically, the mission was his last one, he says. In three weeks Arnold’s deployment would have been over, with him heading home to Naperville. Instead, he ended up doing rehabilitation for a year at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he spiraled into a depression.

Arnold’s desolation was understandable: He loved running, and he loved Army life and being a soldier. In fact, he had planned to re-enlist after his tour of duty ended. But that dream ended, too.

“That first year-and-a-half was tough,” says Arnold, 26. “I was always anxious and easily agitated.”

But he has adjusted. He now wears a prosthetic leg and is able to run. And he has another dream: Arnold wants to help soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and to help amputees cope with the loss of their limbs. To help him achieve this goal, Arnold is studying psychology at Benedictine University in Lisle, where he is a junior. He also stays connected to soldiers in other ways. He volunteers at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, talking to retired veterans who may have to get an amputation. And he helps send packages to soldiers as part of Operation Support Our Troops – America.

Although he joined the Army in 2004 because he wanted to serve his country and considers himself lucky to live in America, Arnold does not view himself as a hero.

“I view myself as having a duty to do,” he says. “I felt like I was just doing my job.” He defines a hero as someone who “puts other people before themselves and asks for nothing in return.”

When asked who was a hero he has known, he replied, “The brave soldiers who saved me that night. If they wouldn’t have jumped onto my burning vehicle and pulled me out, I wouldn’t be here today.”