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A life of respect, adventure: Alumnus dies serving in Afghanistan

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Brian Arsenault loved hockey. When he took the ice adorned in his number 3 maroon and gold uniform, he found happiness.

Hockey, as a sport, demands leadership. Two teams take the ice for an hour, and one emerges with a hard fought victory. Fights often break out. Scores are close. Someone needs to serve as a role model for the rest of the team. For Algonquin, Arsenault was this someone.

Former Athletic Director Francis Whitten remembers how Arsenault was someone he could count on. In tightly contested games, in the playoffs, and against rivals such as Wachusett and Westborough, when the crowd started to get feisty, Whitten remembers turning to Arsenault to ask him to help calm the fans down. Arsenault represented the hockey team in the Athletic Council. On the ice, respect characterized Arsenault’s game.

“Hockey can be a very aggressive and violent game,” Whitten said. “He would play hard but he would always play within the rules, and he would always be sportsmanlike, and respectful of his teammates, his opponents, and the officials.”

Arsenault first made the varsity hockey team as a freshman. Although his team struggled, compiling a 3-15-2 record his senior year, according to Whitten, Arsenault enjoyed just being out on the ice.

“He played hockey for the love of the game,” Whitten said. “He understood the meaning of sport; it wasn’t just about winning.”

One time, Arsenault shaved his head as part of a team ritual, and the administration, suspecting hazing, called him to the office. Arsenault refused to rat out his teammates.

“He loved being a teammate,” Whitten said, “It was his character. It was his fiber.”

Arsenault hockey web

Arsenault (bottom row, second from left) with the hockey team his senior year. (photo courtsey yearbook)

Friend of Adventure

Sean Durkin met Arsenault on the first day of kindergarten. They have been best friends since.

Durkin recalls how they used to attend 5 a.m. hockey practice on Mondays and Fridays, and how Arsenault often complained about the frigid weather. The coach, tired of hearing Arsenault complain, told him to shut up and wear a hat. The next day, Arsenault showed up to practice in a ski mask, completely covering his face.

“He was never super worried about getting in trouble. He just kind of did whatever he felt like,” Durkin said. “He was always finding the lighter side. He didn’t take a lot too seriously.”

According to Durkin, Arsenault hated to sit still. When the two hung out with friends, Arsenault bounced around, antsy, always wanting to be doing something and getting on the move.

Arsenault found an outlet for his energy in his healthy lifestyle. He frequently went hiking and mountain climbing. He avoided junk food, preferring water and protein-rich meals which enabled his workouts. His class voted him Most Likely to Go to the Gym. During high school he participated in organized sports: always hockey, but he also played baseball one spring.

Arsenault also showed a taste for adventure. Once, as a high school junior, he drove to Durkin’s house in his pickup truck. “Get in,” Durkin remembers Arsenault telling him. The two then drove to Woodstock, New Hampshire, where Arsenault heard they could find some good cliff jumping spots. The two spent the rest of the day jumping into lakes and rivers.

“If he wanted to do something, he’d try it, no matter what it was,” Durkin said.

In the classroom, teachers described Arsenault as thoughtful and compassionate. Although he did not always have the highest grades, teachers described Arsenault as having depth and perception beyond his age.

Arsenault gym web

Arsenault was voted Most Likely to be Seen at the Gym by his classmates senior year. (photo courtsey yearbook)

Beyond Algonquin

After his graduation in 2004, Arsenault enrolled at Quinsigamond Community College, where he earned an Associate’s Degree in Arts. Although Arsenault showed interest in a wide array of subjects ranging from writing to nutrition, Durkin says his friend’s interests lay outside the classroom.

Arsenault frequently went up to Burlington, Vermont to visit Durkin in college. The two would go hiking together. Around Northborough, Arsenault fished and went for walks around the Wachusett Reservoir. Purgatory Chasm was on of Arsenault’s favorite places.

“Being in the woods, he could go anywhere he wanted. He could do whatever: there was no structure, and he liked that,” Durkin said.

After Quinsigamond, Arsenault worked in a variety of short-term jobs. Durkin doesn’t recall Arsenault as a “gung-ho” army type, but says that the possibility of enlisting was always at the back of his friend’s mind. The army fit Arsenault’s personality seamlessly: it offered him both the possibility of adventure while continuing his healthy lifestyle. Nowhere else could he get a job that let him jump out of planes. Beyond that, the army would enable Arsenault to see a larger section of the world.

“He went to Algonquin, then he went to Quinsig. His spectrum of the world was pretty limited,” Durkin said. “I think he was really intrigued about meeting people in the army from all walks of life and seeing the world.”

In 2011, Arsenault enlisted in US Army Basic Training and Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He eventually was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he joined the Company B, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. In short, Arsenault’s job description involved parachuting behind enemy lines, completing some of the army’s most challenging missions.

He was really intrigued about meeting people in the army from all walks of life and seeing the world.”

— Sean Durkin ARHS ‘04

Arsenault carried the leadership skills he honed in the halls of Algonquin into the army. He earned numerous awards, chief among them the Bronze Star. According to the Air Force’s website, this award honors a soldier who has “distinguished himself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service.”

Durkin remembers his friend enjoying the social aspects of being in the military. Growing up, according to Durkin, Arsenault was friendly to everyone he met and quickly developed strong bonds with acquaintances.

In February of this year, Arsenault found out that he would be deployed to Afghanistan. Durkin took a few days off from work to visit Arsenault at Fort Bragg before he went overseas. The two stayed up late the night before Arsenault left, talking and watching Dallas Buyers Club.

“He was a little bit nervous, but he was very mindful of me, his family, and those around him,” Durkin said. “He didn’t want to leave us nervous. He was really downplaying it, making it sound like it was no big deal, and that he would be home in ten months. He said that he would be in touch when he could, and told me not to worry about him, that he’d be okay.”

A Heroic Life Lost

On September 4, 2014, Arsenault was killed in Ghazni, Afghanistan. He was about to complete his two-year tenure in active duty and was scheduled to return home around Thanksgiving.

“Spc. Arsenault was an exceptional paratrooper and a valued member of our team,” said Lt. Col. Chris Hockenberry, Arsenault’s platoon leader, in a statement following Arsenault’s death.

The death of his best friend of 23 years struck Durkin.

“I was shocked. I was taken aback. That was the last thing I expected,” Durkin said.

“He always treated everybody he met equally. That’s the way he always was. He was a great kid. He was a great friend. He was a great brother. He was a great guy. He left a positive influence with everybody he met.”

To honor Arsenault, Algonquin has lowered its flags to half-mast since September 4. In addition to this, the school paid tribute to Arsenault through a PA announcement the day following his death. Now, the administration hopes that students can take away lessons from Arsenault’s vigor for life and loyalty to his friends.

“He shared so much of his character and energy with the school,” Principal Thomas Mead, who arrived at the school in 2010, said. “He serves as a good model for kids here today that life is precious and you should do as many things in your life that interest you and follow those interests.”

A Hero Remembered

It took the army ten days to get Arsenault’s body back to Northborough. Arsenault’s family and close friends held a private wake on September 15. The public wake was a day later, at St. Rose in Northborough. Durkin remembers the military’s professional display of honoring Arsenault, but says that the town’s support is what has stuck with him.

“That ride from the church to the Howard Street Cemetery, where the streets were packed, it really felt like the whole town was out there and everybody had stopped what they were doing to be out there as the procession drove by,” Durkin said. “That was the most touching moment for me, the most memorable.”

During the time between services, Durkin ran into a former classmate at CVS. He didn’t remember her name, but she knew that Durkin and Arsenault were close. She recognized Durkin, and gave him her condolences. Then, she told him about how she didn’t have the easiest time in high school, and didn’t have many friends, but that Arsenault was always there for her. She had been taken aback that somebody as popular, handsome, and athletic as Arsenault reached out to talk to her, and was surprised at how friendly he was. She would never forget that, she said.

Pictures from Arsenault’s time in high school hung inside the church at his wake. His senior photo, hockey pictures, and other Algonquin images covered poster boards. On a table sat some of Arsenault’s signature possessions: the sweatpants he always wore around the house, a collection of weathered trail maps.

“A lot of the pictures I was in, or I was there for,” Durkin said. “It was hard to look back on those times. You kind of realize that they’re not going to happen again.”

Now, as Durkin talks about his best friend, he struggles to hold back tears. His voice trembles. He says that a day doesn’t go by without thoughts of Arsenault. The two spent so much time together, that even objects Durkin doesn’t associate with Arsenault bring back memories. Durkin especially remembers the songs and shows that they used to listen to and watch together.

“I can never play it back to him,” Durkin says.

Steven Godbout, Arsenault’s Psychology and World History teacher, attended the public wake. Time has clouded Godbout’s memories of Arsenault. Even 10 years later, though, Godbout remembers how friendly and respectful Arsenault was. The pictures at the wake brought the memories of Arsenault back.

“Time just kind of stands still,” Godbout said. “Everyone’s there for the same reason. They loved and respected Brian. He’s more courageous than most of us will ever be. He truly represented our country.”

flag web

The flag in front of the rotunda at half mast in honor of Arsenault’s life and death.

 

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2 Comments

2 Responses to “A life of respect, adventure: Alumnus dies serving in Afghanistan”

  1. A heroic life lost: Role model alumnus dies serving in Afghanistan | Best of SNO on November 10th, 2014 11:16 am

    […] View original story […]

  2. Robert Hornik on November 17th, 2014 11:25 pm

    Good article Daniel. Nicely done.

    [Reply]

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A life of respect, adventure: Alumnus dies serving in Afghanistan