By Freddie Duquet
Capt. Mark Arena of the U.S. Army Reserves stands in front of the student press at Andover High School with extreme military-like posture, a crew cut to match it, and a pin of the American flag on his blazer. Sipping his coffee every now and then, Arena paces back and forth at the front of Mr. Aubrey’s Journalism classroom as he contemplates answers to questions about war, which more often than not, he can make light of.
Like many members of the military, Arena — who visited Andover High in November, three months after completing a tour in Afghanistan — has a loving family and friends to support him. In a time of war, a soldier must know that “every single day might be your last,” he says. But on one morning during his time in Afghanistan, Arena put his hand in death’s face and said, “Talk to this.” A mortar attack, not unusual in Afghanistan, rained down on Arena’s camp, and through it all, he stayed put at the breakfast table, eating the oatmeal he had long been craving. He points out that the new recruits ducking for cover were the ones acting correctly during such an attack. Nevertheless, Arena will tell you that in a time of war, it’s the little things that matter, like a simple bowl of oatmeal.
Arena doesn’t want to fight. After years of being in the 187th Infantry as a weapons specialist right out of high school, he “didn’t want to kill anybody anymore.” Instead, he wanted to help people, so he went to college hoping to become a humanitarian and a social worker. But after realizing that neither of those professions would provide him with a good living, he went on to become a nurse in the federal prison system.
In the reserves, Arena is capable of holding many positions, including platoon leader, executive officer, and intelligence specialist.
As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Arena speaks about something that seems to be on the minds of many Americans: why do we still send troops to Afghanistan — or why did we in the first place? He explains that the war was a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, plain and simple.
But apparently it isn’t that simple. “Sometimes we really can’t tell who we are fighting,” he says, “because our enemies don’t wear uniforms.”
Another thing that U.S. troops in Afghanistan struggle with every day is the fact that they are battling insurgencies with extremist mentality. “When you couple a religious ideal with an insurgency,” he says, “it makes for something very, very tough to fight.”
Though eccentric in his mannerisms, Arena is surprisingly subtle in his bias, speaking about it only briefly during the classroom press conference: “I would say that I’m a libertarian. I believe in the Constitution, so I’m kind of a conservative.” And while conservatives tend to support the war, Arena states clearly that we should not be in Afghanistan. “We’ve been there too long. I’d like to see the soldiers come home,” he says. “I was sure as hell glad to come home when I did.”
Arena has seen young soldiers die. He has seen and felt the fear that bombs and mortars instill in the hearts of U.S. troops. The idea that the next step could be your last is what Arena claims could perhaps be one of the worst aspects of the Afghan War.
“Fear for one’s life is a very interesting concept,” Arena says, “and if you say you don’t fear for your life [in Afghanistan], it’s a lie. The guy that acts like he kicks down doors every day doesn’t exist.”