They are more than brothers.
The lives of Mike Njus, Eli Godwin and Glenn “Ray” Arpin weaved together on the battlefield in Iraq.
The three, all members of the 82nd Airborne Division, became friends while fighting in the war.
A decade after the start of the war on March 20, 2003, the war-forged friendship is still so strong two of them moved to Northeast Ohio to continue to be close.
All three suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I trust them explicitly,” said Godwin, 35, a Purple Heart recipient, who moved to Akron from Portland, Ore., two years after leaving the Army.
His pal, Njus, 28, of Bath Township, went out to the Northwest in November 2008 to help with the move.
Both Njus and Godwin were combat medics and were assigned to the same battalion.
Njus worked with surgeons at the battalion level in Iraq, and Godwin was assigned to an infantry unit, the unit in which Arpin was a member.
Godwin met Arpin, 28, of Virginia Beach, Va., while training at Fort Bragg, N.C. Several weeks after the war began, the two met Njus.
“We met in country and we bonded,” said Njus, a GlenOak High School graduate, who joined the Army at 17. He is now married and has a daughter.
After his two-year stint in the Army, he enrolled in the University of Akron, meeting his future wife, but still stayed in touch with his Army pals. He is chief operating officer of an online retail company and does consulting work.
Godwin and Arpin did one tour in Iraq and one tour in Afghanistan together with the same infantry unit.
Godwin served four years in the Army, and Arpin served nearly eight years working as a recruiter in Philadelphia his last three years.
After the Army, he went to ECPI University in Virginia Beach, Va., where he majored in information technology, and Njus began promoting the idea of moving to Akron.
Arpin researched jobs in Northeast Ohio and realized the cost of living was lower than it was on the East Coast. Finally, Njus convinced him to relocate.
Arpin moved to Copley Township last summer and works in information technology for a Cleveland firm.
“If these guys weren’t here, there is no way in a million years I would ever have moved here,” said Arpin.
Before the three men lived close by, they played the game Pathfinder with each other via web cam and visited each other several times a year.
Now, they hang out twice a week and still play Pathfinder when they are together.
“I will never have friends like I did when I was deployed,” said Arpin, who is married and has two sons.
Friends under fire
Njus said the fact that all of them have PTSD makes their friendship even more vital.
“I was selfish when I brought them here,” said Njus. “It has helped me having them closer at hand.”
For Arpin and Godwin, a mortar attack April 1, 2003, as their unit was holding on to bridges over the Euphrates River in As Samawah was the defining moment.
Both men, along with all of their comrades, were pinned down for eight hours overnight amid a constant mortar attack.
“I consider that the worst experience I have had or ever expect to have in my life,” said Godwin. “We got ground pounded by anti-vehicle mortars for eight hours straight ... To not know that you are going to be alive for three more seconds for eight hours is a very long time.”
Arpin said it was so dark that night that no one could see anything.
“The ground was very mushy,” he said.
Two days later, Godwin was wounded by a sniper. The bullet struck his finger, then went through his chin and eventually hit his collarbone. He earned a Purple Heart.
“My fellow soldiers who were with me, who don’t have Purple Hearts, they were just as scared as me,” said Godwin. “Getting shot is meaningless compared to having mortars lobbed at you.”
Njus did not meet his two friends until May 2003, when he joined the unit as the 82nd Airborne was about to go into Baghdad.
On a recent night, the three men gathered at Njus’ home to talk about their war experience and time in the Army.
“[War] gives you a pretty good standard to realize what suck is,” Arpin said. “Things don’t suck nearly as bad as people think they do, that’s for sure.”
New view of life
All three said they valued their experiences.
They share a better appreciation for veterans from previous wars and believe the older warriors went through much more than they had to endure.
Arpin hopes young people will not hesitate to join the Army.
“One thing, for sure, is I don’t regret joining the Army,” he said.
He said he and Njus are thinking about joining a Reserve unit.
War, said Godwin, offers an ability to see what is important in life.
“Some of the clarity you get from war — ‘Hey, I’m dying, hey they are going to kill me, or I am going to die real soon, they are throwing mortars at me that are designed to blow up vehicles,’ ” he said.
All this, he said, makes you realize “your family is important ... I swear war will make you age a year in a minute, easy.”
Had he not joined the Army when he did, Godwin said, “[He] would be dead or in prison.”
Njus said it was particularly unnerving driving vehicles through Iraq. He said one of the methods insurgents would use to try to stop convoys was to throw women in front of the truck. The trucks were ordered to keep moving even if it meant hitting someone.
“Iraq sneaks up on you in ways you wouldn’t expect,” he said. “You see a box on the side of the road, and most people would think what horrible litterer dropped that box, and my first reaction is that is probably a bomb.”
As the anniversary approaches this week, the three men consider one another their support network.
“I will never have a friend in the civilian world like these two,” said Godwin, who has a PTSD disability from Veterans Affairs.
“These two, I will live or I will die for them. It is a tight bond.”
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.