JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska –
The story of the selfless servant has been told an uncountable number of times throughout history in one form or another. These stories often depict some larger-than-life superbeing that descends from some other world depending on the story’s origin. However, in real life, these types of people exist throughout the world and largely go unnoticed. In fact, the very nature of selflessness is humble, often quiet, and unassuming.
Retired Col. Jeff Arnold, who now works as the force integration readiness officer for the Alaska Army National Guard in a federal civilian capacity, is one of those types of people.
One could call him a retired service member of the U.S. Military, one could call him a Eucharistic Minister who provides Catholic Communion to hospital patients, and one could also call him a survivor of a passenger plane crash that left 11 passengers and crewmembers dead. He is all of those things, but you would never assume so based on his cheerful and positive demeanor.
Arnold retired May 31 of this year, but his story begins in Royal Oak, Michigan where he grew up. Arnold said he felt his calling to serve others at a young age, in part because of his father’s service.
“My dad served in WWII,” he explained, “and between that and watching all the war movies as a kid, it seemed to be the way for me to go in life.”
After high school, Arnold said he went on to study at Central Michigan University where he joined the ROTC program.
“It took me five years to get through college,” he said. “At year four, I was commissioned into the Army Reserve, and that was 1981. After graduating in 1982, I entered into the active duty Army.”
His time in the active duty would take him to Fort Lee, Virginia, up to Alaska, and eventually on a deployment to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt as part of a peacekeeping force.
“The mission in Egypt was similar to United Nations missions, but also not,” said Arnold. “Following the Camp David Accords with President Carter, a force was established called the multi-national force and observers. We were the peacekeeping force between Egypt and Israel back in 86-87.”
After seven years in the active duty, Arnold swore into the Alaska Army National Guard and returned to Alaska in 1989. For the first many years, he served as a traditional Guardsman, performing his weekend drills and annual training while he held a full-time civilian job.
“I was a traditional Guardsman up until in ‘95,” he said, “when I got picked up on orders and special projects. I got hired in ‘95 full-time with the Guard doing the same thing I’m doing now.”
During Arnold’s tenure, he served as a brigade material management officer, a battalion executive officer for a support battalion, and a mobilization readiness officer.
On June 1, 1999, Arnold was traveling to Arkansas to attend a conference at the National Guard Professional Education Center in North Little Rock, Arkansas, aboard American Airlines Flight 1420. The McDonald Douglas MD-82 crashed while attempting to land in inclement weather, resulting in the deaths of 11 passengers and crewmembers.
Arnold said that he did not remember the entirety of the crash, as he was knocked unconscious almost immediately.
“The wind shifted, so we overshot the first third of the runway,” he explained, “plus we were landing with the wind. Shortly before the end of the runway, the plane did a 90 degree turn, so we’re going sideways, and the anchor bolt of my seat sheared, I went forward, and went to sleep.”
Arnold explained that this was actually a blessing, because he did not have to witness the trauma of the plane being torn apart, passengers being thrown from the plane, and the fiery crash that resulted.
“When I came to, there was a kind of calm,” he said. “A lot of miracles were working that night. Using an Alaskan expression; the Good Lord exercised catch and release. Initially, I was left for dead on a burning airplane, my head was cracked open, and yet, here I am.”
Arnold was modest about the events that unfolded after he regained consciousness. After checking to make sure he was okay, he began helping others.
“I did a self-assessment and knew I had a head injury from the blood on the side of my face and my shirt being soaked with blood,” he said. “But I was still coherent and had the use of all four limbs, so I figured I was good to go.”
After checking for other survivors in the crumpled, burning fuselage, he made his way through a gash in the side of the aircraft that was big enough to walk through. He found that he was at ground level, as the landing gear was ripped off when the plane skidded off the runway. It smashed into a structure and tore in half, and came to a burning rest just short of the bank of the Arkansas River.
Arnold began to help other passengers who were pinned under seats, stuck with broken bones, and dealing with shock while he and others waited more than 30 minutes for rescuers to arrive on scene. Arnold said his left ear was nearly ripped off, and he did not realize until later that he was covered in jet fuel.
“I only need 11 staples in my head, five to ten stitches on my forehead, and however many more to sew my left ear back on,” he explained. “I feel blessed to be alive. Looking at the site, the aircraft and the weather, it truly is a miracle more people were not killed or seriously injured.”
After this experience, Arnold became active in raising awareness of post-disaster assistance. He spends his time volunteering at a local hospital, donating blood, participating in church activities, and teaching suicide prevention courses.
“I’ve generally always been grateful and try to do what I can for others,” he said. “Before COVID-19, I would volunteer at a local hospital.”
In his role as Eucharistic Minister providing spiritual care to Catholic patients, Arnold makes rounds and offers Catholic Communion.
“I’ve been doing it since 1992” he said. “A lot of the staff know me, and if they know someone Catholic or not that’s having an off day, they’ll ask me to visit.”
Despite rising to the rank of colonel, Arnold eventually transitioned into the Warrant Officer rank structure, serving as supervisor, tools and parts, in a consolidated support maintenance shop.
“I converted to warrant officer in 2008,” he said. “I was nearing my mandatory retirement date, and converting to warrant would allow me to continue serving. I rose to Chief Warrant Officer 3 before retiring at my previous rank of colonel.”
Aside from working as a federal civilian for the Alaska National Guard, volunteering to help others, Arnold said he spends his time with his kids; two cats and two dogs.