At an early age, Chris Armstead had a special affinity for men in uniform. Growing up in Holyoke, Massachusetts, his father served in the U.S. Air Force. Also many of his friends’ parents wore uniforms as public servants working for fire and police departments. Armstead knew some day he’d like to serve the country as a soldier. In 1993, he spoke to friends in the military, and later a recruiter. Shortly afterwards, Armstead became a member of the U.S. Army.
Armstead spent the next 21 years in military service. He spent two deployments in Afghanistan, one in Kuwait, and one of his earliest assignments was in Haiti to restore democracy. In 1990, Jean Betrand Aristide won the Haitian presidential election. A few months later, a coup d’etat forced him into exile. In 1994, the U.S. government sent in troops to the island nation to restore democracy. “Former President Carter was sent to talk to the coup leaders and told them they could accept a military police force to restore democracy or an invasion by direct force. They accepted the police force and withdrew peacefully. That’s how I was deployed to Haiti.”
In Haiti, Armstead began his military service as a mechanic. He spent 2.5 years in the Caribbean island nation. One of his duties also led to his becoming disabled several years later. He managed burn pits in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Haiti. “The burn pits in 130 F weather wearing armor with tarantulas running all over is just unbearable,” he said. “The pit is a giant bonfire burning carcasses, diesel fuel and anything else that needs to be gone. It’s believed I contracted cancer from this.”
In 2014, Armstead finished his military service in San Antonio, Texas. He had married a good friend dating back to his junior high school days in Holyoke, while on deployment in Afghanistan. The couple wanted to return to their New England roots with their daughter, Imij, after his retirement. They were looking for a place with the four seasons in a more rural community than Holyoke. His sister-in-law Kris Ward has lived in the Boothbay region for three decades and recommended they move to Maine. “It was exactly what we were looking for,” Armstead said. “We wanted a great school for our munchkin and the Edgecomb Eddy School and Center for Teaching and Learning are world class. So we moved here,” he said.
Reflecting on his military service, Armstead is just as passionate about serving his country as he was as a kid. “I think Veterans and Memorial Day should be viewed like Mother’s Day. Every day should be Mother’s Day. It’s one of those things that should be appreciated every day,” Armstead said. “I remember as a kid being very patriotic and I still am today. I hear the “Star Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful” or any patriotic song, I get very excited and snap to attention bursting with pride in being an American.”
In retirement, Armstead is working on an online bachelor’s degree. He has had a lifelong passion for music and would like to make it his career. He has a collection of various guitars and loves the music of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Led Zeppelin. “I still play and I love all those artists. I play little ‘new school’ country music, too,” he said.
But it’s the love of Hendrix which has had the most profound impact on his music. He named his daughter after the legendary rock guitarist. “Imij is Jimi spelled backwards. My daughter, my wife and myself all love music. It’s what we do,” Armstead said.
In retirement, Armstead had little interest in joining the local American Legion until he had a conversation with Cmdr. Dave Patch. “I didn’t think it was for me. My sister-in-law introduced me to Dave, and it all changed after that,” he said. “His demeanor is what sold me, and after thinking about it, I joined.”
Armstead wanted to take an active role in the community as a retired veteran, and that is exactly what he has done. He regularly volunteers during the legion’s bi-weekly breakfasts and was named the post’s Americanism officer. The national American Legion sponsors an Oratorical Contest, a scholarship competition testing entrants’ knowledge and appreciation for the U.S. Constitution. As Americanism officer, Armstead is responsible for the local competition, which, despite COVID-19, is scheduled for February 2021.
He was also appointed by the town of Edgecomb to serve on a committee to create a monument in Boothbay for veterans who died in service. The committee includes members from Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor, Edgecomb and Southport.
Armstead said it was an honor to serve his country. He also believes his service taught him many lessons and made him a better person. Most of all, it provided a young man from western Massachusetts with the ability to combat his personal challenges. “I liked the training the best. It helped develop belief in my ability. Mostly, if I couldn’t do something, then I knew I could learn how to do it,” he said.
His confidence also led him to win one of the biggest battles of his life. Armstead described himself as “very shy” growing up. He met his wife as a junior high school student in 1982. He didn’t have the confidence to tell her how much he loved her for over two decades. “I finally had the confidence, and it led me to taking my leave three weeks early serving in Afghanistan to go to Holyoke and ask her to marry me,” he said.