Living History: Teacher brings students into battle


Bill Arnold during celebration. 

Photo by Bruce Maxwell

Martha Deller Special to the Business Press

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Bill Arnold was just 26 years old when he cut short a long-planned military career and took a job teaching history at his alma mater – a choice he and his wife felt was more conducive to raising a family. Ten years later, he was in Iraq commanding a Marine Scout platoon fighting to retake the city of Fallujah. Operation Phantom Fury, a six-week battle in late 2004, is now considered the bloodiest – in sheer numbers of U.S. and coalition troops and Iraqi insurgents killed and injured – waged by U.S. ground forces since Hue City, Vietnam. Arnold’s seven-month combat assignment, requiring him to leave behind his Fort Worth Country Day students and his own three children, was a startling if predictable outcome of his decision to join the Marine reserves in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. “We hit the ground in early September 2004 and were heavily engaged with the enemy virtually the entire time we were there,” he recalled recently in a telephone interview from France, where he led 13 students on a World War II history tour of the battlefields of Normandy. Arnold, now 45, returned to civilian life in 2005 but still has vivid memories of Fallujah. As traumatic as it was, Arnold believes the experience made him a better teacher, just as his teaching experience made him a better leader of the 28 Marines he brought home after his unit completed its mission. Arnold’s charges and colleagues – civilian and military – obviously agree. Since his return, he has received several education and service awards, most recently the Bayard H. Friedman HERO Award for the most outstanding North Texas history teacher. Former U.S. Speaker of the House Jim Wright, who nominated Arnold to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1986, was among those toasting Arnold during the presentation in May by the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and Score a Goal in the Classroom. Ironically, Arnold lost the West Point appointment due to a slight hearing loss. Instead, an ROTC scholarship paid his way to Virginia Military Institute, where he met his future wife, Debby, a Trinity Valley graduate and Mount Holyoke College student. Their attraction to each other was “like a lightning bolt,” Arnold said, but the couple had to wait two and a half years to wed – until Arnold’s 1990 graduation – because of ROTC rules banning cadet marriages. Commissioned a second lieutenant, Arnold trained Marines at Camp Pendleton and 29 Palms bases in California for four years, then kept his promise to Debby to reconsider a military career. He left the Marines as a captain and with a toddler in tow, the Arnolds returned to Fort Worth, where Bill began teaching history and coaching football, baseball and other sports at Country Day. His love of history, his mother Ann Arnold Packer’s teaching career and his military background instructing Marines combined to convince Arnold he had a knack for the job. His students and supervisors thought so, too. Head of School Evan Peterson, who was hired as Upper School principal the year Arnold graduated, returned after 10 years at other schools to find Arnold excelling as an 8-year veteran teacher. After observing Arnold with students in the classroom and on the field, Peterson recalled, “I thought, ‘this kid is a young star. He’s going to be great.’” Over 19 years, Arnold has coached four sports, taught eight different history classes, led history and service trips to France and Ecuador and worked short stints in admissions and advancement to gauge his aptitude and desire for an administrative career. But everything changed for Arnold after Sept. 11, 2001, the day three civilian airplanes commandeered by al-Qaida terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., killing thousands. Hundreds more died when passengers and crew diverted a fourth hijacked plane bound for the U.S. Capitol, sending it crashing into a field in rural Pennsylvania. As a wave of patriotism swept over the U.S., Arnold again considered joining the Marine reserves, an option he had pushed aside previously because of coaching conflicts. This time it was his wife’s idea, he said. As they watched news coverage of the attacks, Debby remarked, “Dang it, you’re a good officer. You need to go back in. Your nation needs you.” Two years after he assumed command of the Marine Reserves’ 4th Tank Battalion in Amarillo, the unit was deployed to Iraq. By then he had been promoted to major. After breaking the news to his wife and children (the kids ranged in age from 3 to 11), Arnold informed Peterson, who arranged substitutes to handle Arnold’s classes. Peterson led what would have been Arnold’s second student trip to France. At a school assembly before his departure, Arnold told students that he didn’t know how long he’d be gone but that he intended to make his first trip to the Middle East a learning experience that he would share with them – if and when he returned. “Each day is an adventure,” he told students. “Life should be lived on the offensive, not the defensive. While I’m there, I’m going to learn about the people, the history, the terrain – everything I can. God forbid I die, but when I come back, I’ll share my experiences.” Arnold fulfilled that promise, a testament to his character, according to Marine Sgt. Michael Smith, a Virginia-based federal law enforcement officer who was Arnold’s second in command in Fallujah. Smith depicted Arnold as an exceptional yet humble leader whose intelligence and bravery under fire saved the lives of the Marines assigned to protect regimental commander Col. Michael Shupp. In a letter written for the May award ceremony, Smith described a November 2004 battle in which Arnold ordered his men to push forward into an enemy ambush, personally firing his tank-mounted machine gun as anti-tank rockets narrowly missed his vehicle. “It was a very, very, very violent military siege of a city – something you don’t see in modern times,” Smith said. “Human beings are not meant to be stressed like that. While others were falling apart, he never lost his cool. He was steadfast all the way through it.” Grateful that his men escaped serious physical wounds, Arnold conceded that many, himself included, suffered emotional trauma. “When you emerge from combat, you feel bulletproof, like you can take on the world,” he said. “But it’s hard to move from one world to another so quickly. World War II veterans had time to decompress aboard the troopship. We flew home with blood still on our uniforms. You gradually start to be affected by what you saw, smelled and felt over there.” Peterson said Arnold’s quieter demeanor suggested that the young teacher was struggling with his war experiences. So Peterson wasn’t surprised when Arnold declined a promotion to Upper School principal to reconnect with his children and his students. Gradually, Peterson said, the popular teacher reverted to his previous outgoing personality. Incoming senior Kyle O’Brien said that before Arnold’s deployment, he knew him mostly as his friend Robert’s dad. Now, he said, Arnold is a favorite teacher who brings history alive, challenges students to think and encourages them to pursue their passions. In a Modern Problems course Arnold created, he helps students understand that regardless of politics, being president is tough, foreign policy is not clear-cut and citizens should study the facts before jumping to conclusions, O’Brien said. Now that he’s applying to colleges, O’Brien also appreciates Arnold’s advice to freshmen to research colleges they’re considering and to set goals to get there and succeed. “As freshmen, you don’t think about what your grades will mean three years from now,” O’Brien said. “He told us high school is not just a sprint, it’s a marathon. “ Arnold says his Marine service enhanced his sense of responsibility for his students’ success or failure. “We as teachers have a responsibility to have energy, intellect and enthusiasm,” he said. “Just like in coaching, one kid needs a pat on the back, another needs a kick in the butt. The art is figuring out which needs what. If I give 100 percent to motivate the kids, they’ll succeed. “I learned that in the Marines.” Arnold also learned the grim reality of war, something he said it’s hard to get across to young people who romanticize it. Although he was the fifth generation in his family to go to war – from a great-great grandfather in the Civil War to his father in World War II – Arnold was not prepared for the experience. “The more graphic it sounds, the more they want to go,” he said. “I’m proud of my service but there’s no joy that people were killed – Marines or Iraqis. I just wish I had a video camera on my Humvee so the nation could see what I saw.” Arnold said that while he hopes his children – now 20, 17 and 12 – will never have to go to war, he has neither encouraged nor discouraged them on the subject of military service. “Debby and I believe that a career choice is a personal decision and we provide reasoned guidance only,” he said. “I believe it would be a mistake for me to pressure them. I do hope they will choose a professional career that makes them happy as well as one that serves humankind.”