The sound of two shots fired — even from just a few hundred yards away — gives Lt. John Arroyo a moment’s pause as he gets out of his car at 4 p.m. on April 2, 2014, at Fort Hood Army base in Killeen, Texas.
These are common sounds at any hour of the day for a military base, and on this day, Arroyo is more focused on getting to his battalion headquarters to finish a project (he’s 13 hours into another 15-hour work day) than he is on trying to figure out two quasi-irregular gunshots.
His eyes set on the doors of his building, Arroyo also pays little attention to the car approaching him at a faster-than-normal speed for parking lot traffic. Within moments, Arroyo hears a third shot, and before the echo leaves his ear, he feels a searing pain in the front of his neck and in his right shoulder.
His reflex is to reach for the pain — and the sudden gush of blood — with both hands, but his right arm isn’t responding to instinct. His eyes water. The wind has been knocked out of him. The car is no longer visible.
Arroyo knows he’s been shot, and despite the fact that he’s still (surprisingly) alert and able to breathe, fear starts setting in.
He stumbles back to his car and collapses next to it. Still clutching his throat, Arroyo’s mind starts racing. “Is this it? Is this how I’m going to die?” He thinks about his wife and his children.
Alone, Arroyo starts closing his eyes. A sense of calm comes over him, until he’s jarred awake by a clear, loud voice.
His eyes flash open. “Did I say that?” he wonders. “Did someone yell at me? Did I hear God?”
Arroyo finds the strength to stand up — left hand clutching his throat — and he starts walking toward the building again. He sees a man walking toward him, and in desperation, Arroyo tries to call out to him for help. But he can’t muster even a whisper. He then notices the man in front of him — barely 10 feet away — is holding what could be a weapon and moving erratically.
It’s the man who just shot him. And he doesn’t even notice Arroyo standing there.
The man gets to the building first, and Arroyo hears more gunshots. Then he hears loud voices from behind him.
“Are you OK? What happened?”
The soldiers calling out to Arroyo will later tell him they thought he was wearing a red scarf that was flapping in the wind, his neck so covered in blood that it’s soaking his shirt. Arroyo, who couldn’t call out to the shooter moments before, answers the soldiers.
“I’ve been shot. There’s a shooter.”
The soldiers load Arroyo into the back of a truck and speed toward the emergency room — only a few miles away. He is surprised he can still breathe — his only problem is the soldiers’ hands grabbing his throat to stop the bleeding are actually choking him in the process.
He focuses on that breathing as trees and buildings speed by him from above. He’s handed over to ER medics and rushed inside a chaotic emergency room. Lying on a stretcher, Arroyo, for the first time in a 15-minute span that will change his life forever, feels safe.
He closes his eyes, and finally lets go.
John Arroyo was a model student in high school — above average grades, member of the computer club and an athlete on the football team. But when the bell rang to end the school day, his life became very different. Growing up in Southeast Los Angeles, Arroyo’s evenings and nights were spent “running the streets” with his friends, drinking and “doing dumb things.”
After high school, the dumb things didn’t stop. And the two years that followed graduation were full of dead-end jobs, alcohol and irresponsibility. It took a wake-up call from his older sister, the matriarch of his family at the time, for Arroyo to consider a different path.
“I was going down the wrong road,” he says. “I hit a point in my life where I had to get away from the bad influences surrounding me. My sister told me I needed to get out of California, because my life there was going nowhere fast.”
Arroyo turned to the military — he liked the idea of learning a trade, having a steady job and getting some discipline in his life. And in 1996, there was no immediate threat of being sent off to a war zone, which was his mother’s worst nightmare at the time and the sole reason for her objection to his decision.
He chose the Army over the Marines, because the latter would have sent him to nearby Camp Pendleton, and Arroyo wanted to be far away from L.A. Six months later, the Army sent him about as far away he could get — Fort Bragg, N.C.
“The Army asked me if I could be at the right place at the right time, wear a uniform, get my hair cut and do my job. And if I could, they’d promote me,” Arroyo says. “And, we’ll give you health insurance. Sounded easy enough to me. The Army was hard, don’t get me wrong, but I’d worked hard my whole life. I found my niche in the 82nd Airborne.”
Thoughts of simply learning a trade and maybe driving a truck one day vanished when Arroyo saw Green Berets — members of the Army’s Special Forces — walking around the base like they owned it. They were the “cool guys,” he thought.
“I told myself I could never be one of them. I’m not smart enough and not physical enough,” he says. “But the only one doubting me was me. I’d talked a lot about doing it, and then one day I decided to shut my mouth, stop talking and just go for it.”
In eight minutes, Army Specialist Ivan A. Lopez fires 35 rounds at his fellow troops at Fort Hood, killing three unarmed soldiers and wounding 16, including Arroyo. The 34-year-old Lopez drives his car to three buildings — including his transportation unit’s headquarters and another office where he worked — shooting in each building. He also fires at soldiers on the street, in passenger cars and in a parking lot. He puts the gun to his head and takes his own life after a short confrontation with a military police officer.
Within minutes of the shooting, Angel Arroyo receives a phone call from her husband’s commander. “Have you heard from John?” he asks her, but doesn’t mention the shooting. He doesn’t want to frighten her.
It’s just after 4 p.m., and her husband isn’t due home until 6. “Have him give me a call if you hear from him,” he tells her nervously, and he hangs up.
Moments later, a friend of the Arroyo’s — who also has a husband stationed at Fort Hood — calls Angel and tells her about a shooting on the base. Details are sketchy.
Another friend calls. “Where’s John?”
By 4:30, Angel looks out her window and sees a uniformed Army commander parking outside her home. He then begins walking toward her door.
Angel sees the man through the storm door as he begins knocking, but she refuses to answer. She’s seen this scene in movies. She’s just months removed from losing both parents nine weeks apart. She doesn’t want the news he’s there to deliver.
John and Angel met at Fayetteville Technical College in 2002. John was a young E-5 sergeant taking a few courses to get his college career off the ground. They were in an English class together, and one day, John needed to borrow a floppy disk. She happily obliged. A few days later, his car broke down and he needed a ride home from class. “You know, I should ask that girl who let me borrow a disk,” John recalls. “She was nice to me, then. Today, she’s my wife.”
“John’s alive,” the man says through the screen door. “We have to get you to the hospital.”
Upon her arrival, Angel learns about the extent of her husband’s injuries. It’s possible he’ll never speak again. It’s possible he’s partially paralyzed. It’s likely he won’t wake up from his medically induced coma for another three days.
Instead, John wakes up that night. Surrounded by his wife, family and Army buddies — many of them still in tears — he takes it all in. He grabs his wife’s hand.
“It was at that moment I knew it was all going to be OK.”
It took two tries for Arroyo to be selected for training in Special Forces. He started his first assessment on Sept. 10, 2001.
One day later, two passenger jets were deliberately flown into the World Trade Center in New York City. Another was flown into the Pentagon. A fourth crashed in a rural field in Pennsylvania.
At first, Arroyo thought the events on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, were part of a test. It wasn’t a test, of course, and sitting in a classroom that morning with other Special Forces hopefuls, Arroyo realized his decision to serve was taking on a whole new meaning.
“They told us if we wanted to be a part of what’s going to happen in the next few years, we’re in the right place at the right time,” Arroyo recalls. “After 9/11, we wanted to go out and fight. We wanted to be released to do what our country called on us to do. There was a huge sense of duty.”
Arroyo wasn’t selected for Special Forces in 2001, but tried again and made the cut the following year. In June 2004, as a staff sergeant, he was sent to Afghanistan to patrol and help build rapport with the Afghan people, to convince them the U.S. wasn’t there to “take over the country.”
He didn’t see a lot of combat during that first deployment. He did witness real poverty and met rural farmers doing everything it took to make a living, even if it meant becoming part of the drug trade.
He ended his first deployment in November 2004 and returned the following June. He returned to the U.S. in 2006 before leaving for Iraq in 2007.
Twice during his deployments, Arroyo feared his life. The first time came in Afghanistan, when the vehicle he was in rolled over what his team feared was an IED. The second time, in Iraq, his team was caught in the middle of gunfire from multiple directions.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘I wonder what my wife is doing right now,’” Arroyo says of his mindset while trapped in the crossfire. “’I wonder if she’s out shopping or doing something trivial while I’m trapped in a two-way rifle range.’
“I asked her when I got home if she remembered what she was doing at that time,” Arroyo says. “She didn’t remember. Why would she?”
Doctors tell Arroyo the bullet hit his neck at about a 45-degree angle, missing his vocal chords by mere centimeters before ripping through his right shoulder and stopping in his shoulder blade.
It also missed every vital artery in his neck, though there was considerable damage to his brachial plexus, the bundle of nerves that run from his spinal chord to his right arm.
Arroyo’s surgeon tells him that while it’s uncertain early on what kind of recovery his voice will make (there is a fear he may not be able to speak again), one thing is certain.
He is going to make a full recovery.
“That’s all I needed to hear,” he says. “I didn’t care how long it took.”
He undergoes five surgeries on his throat and in September, doctors perform a 12-hour nerve graph surgery on his shoulder.
The scars on his neck, near where the top button on most shirts would sit, will always be there, and the way it has healed prevents him from completely looking up by bending his neck back. His voice has a bit of a raspy quality to it, but it’s nearly where it was before the injury, save for the swallowing or need for water after talking for an extended period.
“The healing has baffled the doctors,” he says. “It’s defied medical explanation. There are only a few things I can’t do anymore — I drink water instead of coffee. I stay away from spicy foods. But I’m not complaining. I’ll take it.”
And little by little, he’s regaining use of his arm — he can move his fingers and pick up some items, but the arm remains in a sling or by his side for the most part when he is in public.
“When I first started rehab, I didn’t know if I’d ever get movement back,” Arroyo says. “The healing is so unpredictable when a bullet tears through a bundle of nerves like that. There’s no guarantee it will ever be 100 percent, but ever since the 12-hour surgery and with a whole lot of prayer, I’m getting more feeling and more movement. I’m able to do things today the doctors said would take well over a year to even think about doing.”
Arroyo’s physical rehab also helps heal relationships in his family. He’s growing considerably closer to his 21-year-old stepson, Mason, the youngest of his and his wife’s three children and the only family member available who can serve as his nonmedical attendant during the first few months after his release from Brooke Army Medical Center.
“We weren’t on speaking terms before, and here I was having to rely on him for help. I had to humble myself before him … the man who once was telling him what to do now had to ask him for help,” he says. “Through that, our relationship has been restored. I loved him before, but it was more of an authoritative love. Today, I look at him in a different way.
“If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that I’ll never sacrifice my family for my career or anything else again. They don’t take a backseat anymore. They are my No. 1 priority.
During his deployments, Arroyo was usually the man asked to pray over the vehicles. He was considered one of the more spiritual men among his fellow soldiers, but still, Arroyo considered his relationship with God to be “lukewarm.”
“I took my family to church on post, but I still didn’t know the Word,” he says. “I only turned to God when I needed him.”
By 2009, after his three deployments, Arroyo decided he needed more than the typical counseling that soldiers returning home from war often receive. He needed spiritual counseling. His relationship with God improved, and Arroyo began sharing his testimony with other soldiers.
“I met someone I was on a trip with, and he was missing half of his left arm, wounded during his last deployment,” he says. “His job was to talk to other wounded soldiers, but on that trip, he told me he was mad at God. I asked God for a word … how do I respond to him? So I told him he’s affecting more lives through his injury than he ever did through his uniform. Yes, he lost a hand, but how many lives had he touched because of his experience and his sacrifice?”
During the tough times of his rehabilitation, Arroyo turns to Isaiah 53:5 to get him through: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his stripes, we are healed.”
“What would have happened had I never been shot, or had I healed immediately?” he asks. “I would have put my uniform back on the next day, went straight back to working 16 hours and probably not spending enough time thanking God. But today, as I’m going through this, I’m learning patience. I’m learning to make it about God every day, all day. So if God tells me, ‘Hey John, go to the seventh floor of that hospital and tell a gang member I love him,’ or, ‘Find that wounded chopper pilot and tell him I’ve given him a second chance,’ then I do it. No questions asked.”
Arroyo begins working with and speaking for the Wounded Warrior Project, knowing that the mental and spiritual healing a soldier endures after war is just as or more difficult than the physical healing. He starts up the Second Chance Ministry in Seguin, Texas, talking to prisoners to let them know they have a future … that God hasn’t given up on them.
He’s also juggling working at the local hospital on Tuesdays and Thursdays with attending Bible college full time.
And he is spending more time with his wife and children. If the past year has told him anything, it’s to not put his family on the backburner anymore.
“I walked out of my house on April 2, and I almost never walked back in,” he says. “God may have big plans for me, but he’d never ask me to sacrifice my family. He gave me that family to love and cherish. I make sure they know every day they are my top priority.”
On May 11, 2013, Arroyo was officially commissioned as a second lieutenant by Campbell University’s renowned ROTC program.
He decided to pursue his degree after getting an opportunity to work with government agencies while in Special Forces, and he saw that many of the jobs he was interested in required a college degree. He began taking classes for Campbell at the Fort Bragg campus and chose history as a major because he felt it would help refine his writing skills.
Campbell would be the stepping stone to an advanced degree, Arroyo hoped, possibly in the medical field. That’s why he chose Fort Hood, Texas, after his commissioning and graduation — its 1st Medical Brigade is the oldest color-bearing medical unit and most diverse medical brigade in the U.S. Army.
“I wanted to be the best possible Army officer I could be,” Arroyo says. “I wanted to give back to an organization that gave me so much — took me off the streets in California and gave me a stable life so I could one day provide for my family.”
On April 2, 2014, I was shot in the throat with a .45 from 15 yards away …”
Ten months after the injury and two years after he last stepped foot in North Carolina, Arroyo returns to Campbell University as the guest speaker for the Founders Week Campus Connections, where he shares his testimony to a packed audience of students in Turner Auditorium.
His 16-minute speech details the shooting and his physical and spiritual recovery. Students, some in tears, sit silently as the Green Beret and veteran of three deployments in the Middle East talks about how he almost lost everything in the one place where he should have felt safest.
“I believe there’s only one thing promised to us,” he tells his audience, “and that’s the breath we’re taking right now. The next breath is never a guaranteed thing.”
He talks about the man who shot him and what his family must feel today. He says he hopes to one day reach out to them, to tell them their father, husband or son is forgiven and that he loves them.
Though he’s a California native, Arroyo says his three-day visit to North Carolina feels like coming home. He says Campbell alumni are everywhere in the Army, and there’s usually an instant bond when he meets a fellow Camel.
He says Campbell played an important part in his recovery and helped mold him into the man he is today.
“It took a small Baptist university to help a man who grew up Catholic find himself and build a better relationship with God,” he says. “Coming back to Campbell is like coming back to the place where it all started. I’ll always be grateful to this place.”