|| Arsenal worker loves building 'letters from home' for fellow soldiers
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ROCK ISLAND -- As Chester Fritch passes the National Cemetery on his way to work each day, the long rows of tombstones he sees serve as a reminder of why his job at Rock Island Arsenal is important..
Some of his friends, fallen brothers in arms who fought beside him in Vietnam, are there. He said their sacrifice is one of the reasons why he values his responsibilities at the Arsenal, where he oversees the making of parts for numerous weapons, from 9 mm handguns to .50-caliber machine guns to mortars.
Mr. Fritch, 63, a Kewanee native who now lives in Silvis, said his workforce also makes replacement parts and trigger assemblies for M-16 rifles, along with cleaning rods.
"We make them," Mr. Fritch said of the weapons and component assemblies. "Somebody's got to make them.
"Anybody who has a weapon through the federal government, basically, repair parts can be made throughout the factory and myself. We encompass a large area."
Mr. Fritch is a Marine Corps combat veteran who served a tour and a half in Vietnam.
"I graduated high school in May of '69," he said. "From there, right straight into boot camp. Eight weeks later, I'm in Vietnam. I was 18 and indestructible."
Mr. Fritch said his job is important not only to those in the armed services, but also to the families of those serving.
"I don't like to fail," he said. "I won't fail because of something we did. Part of that drive is the fact that at the end of the island down at the cemetery, I have some friends of mine who served with me in Vietnam and are presently here down at the cemetery.
"That's how I consider it. They're living down here, and I visit them twice a day, minimum.
"Real life and real death are different than what you see in the movies. If you go out and shoot somebody, to know that you took another life or maimed somebody, it's different when it happens to you. It changes you as a human being."
Mr. Fritch oversees a number of computer numerical control (CNC) machines to make the parts. "We have a plethora of machines," he said. "I have just about everything CNC today."
"I know people think, 'Oh, hell, it's just a bolt, a screw, a simple clamp, stuff like that,'" Mr. Fritch said. "But every little piece is intricate."
And in the heat of battle, Mr. Fritch reiterated, it can mean life or death.
Mr. Fritch started working at the Arsenal in 2004. Prior to that, he worked for the former McDonnell Douglas, which merged with Boeing. Before that, he worked at John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline. He has been a machinist since he left the Marines in 1972.
"My philosophy is I want everybody to know everything," Mr. Fritch said. "We constantly cross-train. Everybody knows everything, that's what I want. We're not just about coming in here every day and collecting a paycheck.
"I run my department just like I was in the Marine Corps. They (employees) know exactly what I'm going to do. There's no guessing with me."
Mr. Fritch is a self-admitted gear-head.
"When I was younger, I used to build a lot of street rods," he said. "Oh, yeah, I'm a gear-head from way back. You can't help but be."
He drives a Chevrolet SSR.
"Mine has the Corvette motor," he said. "I tell you what, I head out early in the morning if I'm going to golf; I pop the top down, cruise about 50 mph down the interstate, just enjoying tunes and what God gave us."
Mr. Fritch said he comes from a family of Marines. His pride in his country is evident. He said he is thankful to his country for the opportunities he's had.
"I can remember when I was stationed over there (Vietnam)," he said. "I was working on the 106 (recoilless rifle), and one of the parts I opened up, the bag was marked Rock Island Arsenal.
"It's a feeling of something from home when you're so far away. You open up something that says, 'Hey, Moline, Illinois, or Rock Island, Illinois.' When you're away as a soldier, or you're a war veteran, or whatever you want to call it, that little bit of home goes a long way.
"You might have been in a firefight for 24 or 48 hours, and you get all done, and you get a letter from home. It helps."
For that reason, Mr. Fritch loves his job.
"I'll give them everything I've got every day," Mr. Fritch said. "I'm not finished. I'm not done yet."