Monday, August 27, 2007

'Arvy' remembered by comrades

BAYJI, Iraq – They never call him Nicholas, and only rarely refer to him as Nick. They never even use his full last name. It's almost exclusively "Arvy," short for Arvanitis, short for Cpl. Nicholas Arvanitis, 22, of Salem.

Arvanitis served in this Sunni city about 125 miles north of Baghdad with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, and he died here last Oct. 6. His friends and fellow soldiers still serve where he was killed, in a downtown joint security station much improved over the last year. As of early August 2007, his unit had about three months left on their 15-month deployment.

The two-story JSS compound bears scars from a recent suicide-bomb attack, and its roof is piled high with sandbags and plywood bunkers. The perimeter watchtower where Arvanitis died from a sniper shot is still there, now manned by an Iraqi policeman.

Sgt. Christopher Reynolds, 26, from New Braunfels, Texas, saw New Hampshire for the first time from the window of the plane descending into Manchester-Boston Regional Airport last October. It was the farthest north he'd ever been, and he said the landscape was really pretty. Reynolds already had been sent home on leave, and he wasn't happy about returning stateside, with his unit's deployment just a couple months under way.

But the positive side of the trip, he said, was that the Army paid his way to go to Arvanitis' funeral.

"This life will age you," Reynolds said, and it's true he looks a lot older than his years. But he's the type of infantryman that, even sweating under 90 pounds of gear and body armor, looks like he could handle even more.

He's often absolutely hilarious, sitting at the JSS picnic table, trading goofy stories with other paratroopers about their first intimidating days in "1 Panther" as the 1st/505th is known.

Reynolds isn't funny at all when he talks about Arvanitis; he just sounds weary.

"It was the best and worst thing I've ever done for myself," he said of going to the funeral. "I promised his mother I'd go back to New Hampshire, after the deployment, so she can meet my wife and daughter," Darcy and Judith.

Arvanitis' mother, Maureen, even tried to pay Reynolds' way home from the funeral, he said, but the Army provided the ticket to and from New Hampshire. Maureen Arvanitis still sends packages to the soldiers, another trooper said, and while the official name of Joint Security Station Arvanitis-Sigua sounds so informal some of the paratroopers don't even know it's the official name, other soldiers think she's aware of the designation.

They describe Arvanitis and another soldier they lost, Sgt. William Sigua, in much the same terms, as guys they all wanted to be friends with. A third soldier, Cpl. Eric Palmer, died on June 24, perhaps too recently to receive the same kind of open eulogizing.

The soldiers all make very clear that their lost friends' stories should be told and remembered.

"Arvy was an interesting guy. I think about him every day; that's what (stinks) about it," said Spc. Adam Elliot, 21, from New Orleans, La. Soft-spoken and always calm, Elliot still jokes about how a trip home on leave ended up with his fleeing Hurricane Katrina ("So I'm a hurricane evacuee, too"), but his voice takes on the same tired tone as Reynolds'.

"He was my first team leader, took me under his wing," Elliot said of Arvanitis, recalling his own arrival at Fort Bragg in 2005. "He didn't have a select group of friends. He was friends with everyone."

Now, Elliot is a team leader himself, passing along the knowledge Arvanitis imparted to him by watching over his two team-members.

"Get a routine, put it into practice. Use common sense, and work as a team," Elliot said, reciting the duties that once were Arvy's. "If we're going into a building, make sure we know who will be the first one to move. If you're providing rear security, you have the responsibility to make your own calls. Simple things. Controlling ammo -- don't waste rounds. Plus, I have to control myself."

That's what an infantry team leader does; what Arvy did.

By no means is every soldier ready or eager to share memories. Elliot encourages another paratrooper to relate a few stories, and the trooper starts to, but then the anger and bitterness creep in. He curses, says, "It's a shame," and walks away.

If they aren't telling stories, they still show they remember him. If a soldier doesn't wear a black metal wristband engraved with Arvanitis' name, then he wears the one memorializing Sigua. So many of the paratroopers wear one or the other that it's no different than any other article of their uniforms, simply something else they automatically put on.

With soldiers spread so far across the country, rarely is there an opportunity to travel home together. Arvy would have seen no reason to share a carpool with Elliot or Reynolds. But he did share his last ride home on leave with Spc. Patrick O'Donnell, a friend from Quincy, Mass., the two driving up I-95 from Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., sharing stories and laughs the way any two 20-somethings would.

"His mother just sent out three big boxes of stuff," said O'Donnell, 21, who visited with Arvanitis' family while home on another leave, earlier this year. "Baby wipes, goodies -- stuff we need."

It's about a 16-hour drive from Fayetteville to New Hampshire, maybe less with two guys sharing the wheel. Arvy stopped off at O'Donnell's house, took a shower and headed up to New Hampshire.

"He wanted to do this tour in Iraq, knock it out and move on," O'Donnell said. "He had a lot of different plans."

At his funeral, it was recalled that on the last night before the unit left for Iraq, Arvy jumped on stage with a band at the bar his friends were giving him his send-off and started jamming on the guitar. Everybody acknowledged he was a great guitar player, not just someone who could string together a melody or two. Still, he didn't have a long-term dream about becoming a rock star.

"He wanted to be a history teacher, be in a band a little bit on the side, maybe during the summer," O'Donnell said. "He was a stand-up guy all the way around. He wasn't the type to stand around. He just wanted to get the job done."

Lingering bitterness remains among the soldiers over how media accounts described Arvanitis' death, incorrectly, as occurring while he was "on a patrol."

The 82nd's official announcement says he was "killed when he was engaged by enemy forces with small arms," which is true, but the soldiers believe that makes it seem like he died while engaged in a stand-up fight, instead of what they saw as performing a pointless job: manning a watchtower that an Iraqi policeman had refused to stand guard in.

Soldiers are equally frustrated with a mission that has moved away from raids and arrests of insurgent leaders, to "engagement" and "reconciliation."

The paratroopers make it perfectly clear they did not train for and did not choose duty as policemen who interview residents and basically walk a neighborhood beat.

Still, the company commander, Capt. Timothy Peterman, 32, of Roy, Utah, offers some evidence that Arvanitis' service made a difference.

Peterman said Iraqi police avoided or refused any joint duties during the first months of the 82nd's deployment but now patrol with the U.S. soldiers or even on their own. The Iraqis remain a long way from being a legitimate stand-alone security force, but Peterman believes the Iraqi police and army, at least near Bayji, are slowly getting there. He said U.S. forces give the Iraqis the breathing room they need to establish credibility, and that neighborhood visits, instead of raids, show U.S. troops in a positive light.

"The toughest thing for my guys to do is the right thing," Peterman said. "Our biggest success is when we go out and knock on doors and meet people."

It takes a very long view to have faith in that mission, which is not a view the weary infantrymen of Charlie Company are especially interested in taking.

They are content to take a few minutes to look back, to recall the friend they honor through the name of the place where they serve and fight, and through those metal wristbands they wear.

"He left his mark on us," Elliot said last month, July 17 -- nine months to the day after his friend's funeral. "You'd have to know him, but he definitely left his mark."

From the Union Leader

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