FORT POLK, La. — As the weather warmed and the impacts of the pandemic continued to permeate society, Families had to come to terms with the lack of activities available to kids over the spring and summer months. Luckily, for Fort Polk’s Dogwood Terrace community, a 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division Soldier stepped forward to offer a simple but invaluable solution. Demonstrating the essence of the selfless-service Army value, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Arnold, platoon sergeant, volunteered to coach football to neighborhood kids.
“I’ve coached football for Child and Youth Services at every one of my duty stations,” said Arnold. “With the COVID-19 lockdowns, I noticed my own boys were getting lazy, so we bought equipment and started training outside. That’s how it all began.”
As he and his kids took to grassy fields in Dogwood, some of Arnold’s previous flag and tackle football players noticed and wanted to join, he said. “Eventually, as more kids wanted to play, we just opened it up to the entire Dogwood community. I realized that it was a good way for these kids to stay in shape during the pandemic.”
Arnold’s heart of selfless service illuminated the essence of his leadership. Not only did he apply these fundamental Army values to his job, but he also brought them into his home and community, emulating discipline and selflessness for the kids he coached.
Three months later, in the thick of summer, Coach Arnold (as the kids know him) is still running speed agility drills as dragonflies buzz above the same Dogwood fields. Punctuating the hot air with his whistle, Arnold commands his group to get ready for each successive drill, from stretching to karaoke exercises.
To instill a sense of discipline through the exercises, Arnold has the kids clap to demarcate the beginning and end of each different drill. “They know, if I don’t like the clap, then I’ll keep repeating the command until they get it right. It adds structure and discipline to our practices.”
As a true leader, Arnold also uses these practices to offer words of positivity and wisdom. He covers important and relevant topics at each practice.
As the summer inches closer to the beginning of fall semester, Arnold said he focused on school at a recent practice. “We huddle up and talk, and I try to give them some positivity. This week we’ve focused on school and getting ready for the year, keeping in mind some of the differences the kids might encounter, like virtual learning.”
Arnold said he encouraged kids to get into the habit of reading now, preparing themselves for their upcoming academic years. “They’ve been focusing on keeping themselves physically fit, but now they need to focus on being mentally fit and getting smarter.”
He does all this while also adhering to the mandates and recommendations for COVID-19. “When we stretch, we stay within the 6-feet mitigation guidelines. On Saturdays we do scrimmage, but we use spread-out formations at those times also,” said Arnold. Staying within the parameters of the issued general orders remains a top priority, he said. “We’ve never been over 10 kids; if we did get bigger, I would split the kids into separate groups, which requires another coach.”
Pfc. Trent Waibel, 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, 3rd BCT, has since joined Arnold’s endeavor to keep Dogwood kids active and positively engaged through the summer. “He’s a young guy, but he and his wife just started coming and helping,” said Arnold.
With the additional coach volunteer, Arnold is better able to maintain the scheduled practices each week. “I like the idea of having more volunteers, so we can keep the practices going for the kids. It’s easy to get the kids to commit; it is harder to get adults to commit at the same level,” he said. “But, having others help is vital in keeping the practices consistent for the kids.”
“I dedicate three days a week to coaching. It’s challenging — especially when everybody’s in the field. I’ve even had to cancel a few times, which hurts. There are a lot of times that I’ll conduct a practice and then get right back into uniform and go back to work,” he said.
For Arnold, however, the difficulties are well worth the rewards. “Just seeing the differences in the kids makes it worthwhile. There is one kid who wasn’t coordinated at the beginning. I could throw a ball to him, and it would slip right through his fingers. Now, he’s catching and running as fast as some of the fastest kids at practice,” said Arnold. “I like seeing the kids’ progress.”
The kids and their parents are equally as happy, grateful and impressed with the experience.
“Coach is an amazing motivator and ensures that the kids are staying safe and having fun,” Kelsey Kelley, one of the kid’s mothers, said. “He involves the parents in scrimmages and creates a positive atmosphere for everyone involved. He teaches the players self-discipline and motivates them to push themselves further with each practice. With many parks, pools, and gyms closed, this program allows the players to focus their energy in a positive way.”