FORT WAYNE – It’s best that, for most of the time, AJ Arnett doesn’t think about that day. No one should constantly carry those kinds of memories – of the blood and the death, and of his own trauma.
Lately he’s been surrounded with too much goodness to dwell upon the evil of war more than eight years ago.
These days, Arnett continues to bathe in the cross-country success of young Dustin Starnes, a Northrop High School freshman who last week finished 40th among 179 participants in the Indiana High School Athletic Association semistate meet at The Plex. Of the 16 freshmen who were there two Saturdays ago, Starnes was second.
It’s been six years since the program has seen good results, says Arnett, in his third season as the Bruins’ boys varsity cross-country coach. I’m not saying the past couple of years have not been good, but to see a freshman – someone so young – go this far makes me want to cry a little bit. That’s how exciting it is.
I had jitters going to that race, and I haven’t been to a semistate since I was running.
Arnett was a junior at Concordia Lutheran High School when his Cadets team reached the cross-country state finals in the fall of 2002. That season, he was selected to the All-Summit Athletic Conference team.
He would run again, as a senior, and graduate in June 2004.
Thirteen months later, this time as an Army soldier stationed in Iraq, AJ Arnett came perilously close to never running again. But he would. And he still does.
‘It was a rough day’
The day was July 13, 2005, between 9 and 9:30 a.m. in Sadr City, near Baghdad.
Arnett and his unit were in a neighborhood, stopping traffic to look for car bombs, keeping children away from the military vehicles and fencing. What happened is a car bomb found them – a suicide Shiite Land Cruiser that detonated about 15 feet away.
I remember feeling the concussion, seeing the flash, hearing everything, Arnett says. A lot of civilians were killed. I remember seeing a bunch of kids that were killed. The medic that was with me – Doc – he was killed. He was probably 10 feet from me. It was a rough day.
Stars and Stripes reported that 27 people, including 11 children, died from the explosion.
I was about 200 meters away, and I flew backwards, says Staff Sgt. Brian Watson. When the car bomb went off – there were houses along the street – it took half the house with it. The only thing left of that car was the engine block, sitting in the road.
Watson, now a 32-year-old working on an accounting degree in Savannah, Ga., was among the first to attend to Arnett.
I didn’t see too much blood on AJ, but when I grabbed his legs, he screamed so loud, Watson says. The calf on one of his legs was messed up. So I grabbed the upper part of him. When I did, I didn’t realize that he had concrete blocks imbedded into his legs. And when I grabbed him, he screamed. That’s when we found out Doc (Benyahmin Yahudah) was dead.
That was the last time I saw AJ until we came back from Iraq. That was 2006. He was actually in the same hospital I was in after I got injured.
The Army told Arnett’s parents that their son had suffered a broken leg, except it was considerably worse.
The explosion caused debris to shatter the tibia in his left leg.
He moved to a series of hospitals, from Baghdad to Germany to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., to Augusta, Ga., where his family finally got to visit him.
Because he is allergic to penicillin, he underwent about 20 surgeries to keep the wound clean. He required skin grafts on both sides of his left calf.
He graduated from wheelchair to walker to crutches to cane.
On Dec. 16, 2006, he was given his retirement papers from the military.
I started working here the first week of January, Arnett says. I wanted to get my foot in the door. He smiles at the statement’s irony.
Here is with the Three Rivers Running Co.
Yes, he has returned to his running roots – back to the days when he was a kid at Concordia, and the roads didn’t have death and destruction around the corner.
In the beginning, the pace was naturally slow. He could run for 10 minutes, then would have to stop. To be with friends, he would bicycle with them.
But the leg grew stronger, and the distances became longer as the leg that had undergone so many surgeries held together.
Since the injury, Arnett has participated in a marathon, eight half-marathons, several 50-kilometer races and a 50-miler. He’s hoping for a 100-miler but isn’t sure when.
Seeing how much the guy has progressed is awesome, Watson says. I didn’t think he was going to be able to walk anymore, much less run.
One thing about AJ: He is one determined person. If he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it. He is not going to stop until he gets to where he wants to be at.
But for now, the 28-year-old Arnett is content to be.
He doesn’t talk about that July day in 2005 unless prompted, unless he wears shorts and somebody notices the gouges and scars on both sides of his lower left leg.
It’s funny, Arnett says. Most of the freshmen, they won’t say anything, but somehow they know.
I had one kid the other day – a football player, I think – ask about my leg. I told him I was swimming down in Florida, and that a shark got me. He goes, What?’ Kids are so gullible.
So he is out there with his kids, running with them like he’s a kid, himself. He’s back on the road; back on the run.
Once in a while, when the boys are weary and their sides burn and the grass is green and inviting for a rest, coach Arnett will remind them of what he endured.
In passing, I’ll joke about it, he says. I tell ’em, Hey, I’ve got a busted leg, and I can still go out and do 50 miles.’
He says he would go back into the military in a heartbeat if he could. He wanted to be a Ranger. That was his dream. But that dream, like Doc, like others from his battalion, is gone.
This is a great job, he says in the running store. I love working here. I get to help people every day. This pays the bills. I don’t have any problems, and my wife’s got a job, and she’s happy there.
If I ever write a story about myself, that’s the message that would come across. Whether it’s a car wreck, or you lose a loved one, or whatever, you always bounce back.