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90-year-old veteran visits city

Capt. Arnold shares remarkable story

By ZOË WATKINS - zwatkins@t-g.com
Posted 11/12/22

Capt. Robert Arnold, a 90-year-old veteran who has seen the world from the Persian Gulf to the North Pole, recently visited Shelbyville for the first time during the American Mule Festival, held at …

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90-year-old veteran visits city

Capt. Arnold shares remarkable story


Capt. Robert Arnold, a 90-year-old veteran who has seen the world from the Persian Gulf to the North Pole, recently visited Shelbyville for the first time during the American Mule Festival, held at Calsonic Arena earlier this fall.  

Arnold believed that the people here would have similar patriotic thoughts as his own. “Dr. Bob,” as he’s known, said he’d like to come back next year for the festival, “God-willing.”  

While here recently, he shared his most remarkable life story. The T-G is proud to share his journey in honor of Veterans Day.  

How it all started  

A Louisville, Ky., native, Dr. Arnold’s mother was a nurse and was the main instigator, he recently shared, in his decision to become a doctor.  

He studied at the University of Kentucky and received his medical degree at the University of Louisville in 1957.  

He said recently that he grew up around saddle bred horses that his stepfather raised. So, he was familiar with the horse industry in the Shelbyville area.  

After graduating, he practiced medicine “in the mountains” to get enough money to do a surgical residency.  

“Surgery is very precise. You know what you’re doing most of the time and you can see what you’re doing,” Arnold said. “And what I liked most about it is most people got completely well and then you had the satisfaction of seeing someone you operated on happy.” 

Then, in 1983, there was what he calls a crisis in medicine.  

“The insurance companies were taking more and more control and it was impossible to be an individual practice. So, I joined the Navy in 1983.”  

At age 51, when he joined the Navy, he kept in shape, running 1.5 miles before breakfast every morning. And he wasn’t the only experienced surgeon to join the Navy that year.  

Seasoned surgeon  

“When you’re on a ship, there’s no one to back you up. It’s just right on you and that’s why they picked older people on the surgical teams because they’d be able to work by themselves without asking for help,” he said. 

After the Korean War, they came up with this idea of surgical teams, as new weapons made carrying wounded in helicopters impossible. So, surgeons were put right in with the troops.  

The Navy was ordered by Congress to create surgical teams to be deployed anywhere needed. Arnold was put on one of the first four teams with two being on the East Coast and two on the West Coast.  

One of these surgical teams had 20 people, including a board-certified surgeon, an intern, an anesthetist, several operating room technicians, corpsmen and a regulator who did administrative work. 

If any of the ships or Marines had someone with appendicitis, wounded or shot, they would send them over to the surgical teams. 

“We went to sea with the Marine units. We lived with them. We ate with them. And we operated on them,” Arnold said. “I really like the Marines. They’re patriotic and gung-ho and like me, they bleed red, white, and blue. And it made me appreciate our country more.”  

Arnold added, “We kept our wounded with us and that was very successful.”  

Due to their success, the Navy increased it to six teams the next year. The veteran said he did as many as 120 surgical procedures at sea with one report saying, “ . . . with flawless results, returning to full duty many patients who would have been lost to current operations in his absence.”  

It was a good fit, especially since Arnold said he enjoyed trauma surgery the most. He recalled one surgery where two Marines had gotten into a fight; one had his throat slit.  

“They brought him in, and we saved his life.”  

In one of his Naval fitness reports, it states, “Captain Arnold is an outstanding example of a naval medical officer. He combines the exceptional skills of a surgeon and a keen insight into the concept of military operations.”  

The naval hospitals were about the same size as those in which he had previously practiced.

“And I also thought it might be fun to go on a ship now and then. See the world,” Arnold said.  

And he did.  

Capt. Arnold sees the world  

He was stationed on the USS Iwo Jima, USS Saipan, USS Guadalcanal as well as on the carrier Nimitz.  

“I did an appendectomy on the Nimitz in a hurricane.”  

Arnold explained a carrier doesn’t roll. But they will pitch forward and back. With the operating room at a right angle and with everything bolted down, they would pitch over one way, causing them to stay in the same plane. “It was just smooth as silk,” the veteran surgeon recalled.  

He also did surgeries around the world. Arnold went to the North Pole as a training exercise to meet up with the Norwegians—a 77-day journey between there and Norfolk.  

“It was the U.S. that did all the medical work,” Arnold said.  

He’s also been to Germany, Lebanon, Mombasa and England— the place where he took a 14-day layover and had a second honeymoon with his wife, Betty. “We had a car and drove all over England, staying in quaint little places. I think that was my favorite time of the whole thing,” he said.  

Arnold said he’s been to the Suez Canal during August when the Arabians were mining the Persian Gulf. “I thought about Moses when he took the Israelites across there. There’s not a blade of grass, a grasshopper, nothing. They spent 40 years there.”  

But Arnold said his favorite port was probably Haifa in Israel. “The Israelis really liked us. They had an army and an air force, and our Navy took care of them, and they really appreciated it.”  

“It was a good decision,” Arnold said about joining the Navy. “It was fun taking care of them and they appreciated it. And I enjoyed their appreciation.”  

But the attitude among the military and toward veterans has changed over time.  

“I think the Vietnam War turned people off. Now it seems to be coming back the other way. People seem to realize you have to have people to do this,” he said.  

Appreciating America  

Arnold retired from the military after 21 years, with 12 years of active duty.  

His is no doubt considered a remarkable story one perhaps for the history books. But after his wife of over 60 years was admitted into a nursing home, Arnold said he found himself alone.  

Wanting to find other patriotic people who “bleed the colors of red, white, and blue,” Arnold decided to come down to the American Mule and Bluegrass Festival in Shelbyville this fall.  

Marty Gordon, who began AMBF, said he met “Dr. Bob” the day before this year’s festival started.  

“I asked him why he was attending the festival,” Gordon recalled. “He stated he wanted to be around people that thought like he did.”  

The veteran recently said, “This is the greatest country that ever was and still is . . . . I think people ought to start appreciating it instead of downgrading it.”  

He added, “I thought these people down here are going to be like me. They’re going to be patriotic, God-fearing people. And they were. I made some nice friends like I did in the military.”