For one father, new Global War on Terrorism memorial in Georgia triggers emotions

A sketch of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center.


By CHUCK WILLIAMS | Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (TNS) | Published: October 15, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — The name John M. Henderson Jr. — one of 6,915 etched into eight slabs of black granite a stone’s throw from Fort Benning— was right there for his father to see.

John Henderson Sr. paused, then kissed the index finger on his right hand before running the finger across the name, starting with the “Jr.” at the end and working right to left.

It was like he was going backward — a mental and emotional rewind after more than a dozen years of pain.

But the first words out of Henderson’s mouth were not about his son, killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 4, 2005. Instead, his voice cracking, Henderson talked about Damian J. Garza, whose name was carved to the right of his son’s and separated by a dot. Both soldiers were assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment, 3rd Battalion.

“He was killed with Damian Garza,” Henderson said. “Damian was from Midland, Texas. Damian was in the ‘bat’ maybe 18 months ahead of John.”

Those kinds of memories will be triggered this week as the Global War on Terrorism Memorial is dedicated at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center next to Fort Benning. The 11 a.m. Monday dedication will draw military and civilian dignitaries from across the country.

But it will also draw hundreds of family members like John Henderson Sr. who will get a look at the $2 million memorial that honors all soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines killed in the ongoing war that was the United States’ response to the attack of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

“We think that servicemen and family members will come here just as they have gone to the Vietnam Wall in Washington to see that their loved one, their battle buddy was always remembered, etched in stone and never forgotten,” said Greg Camp, a retired colonel and president and chief operating officer of the National Infantry Museum Foundation.

A family tradition

Last week, John Henderson Sr. got a preview of the expansive outdoor memorial that sits just to the left of the museum’s main building. It tells of the story of the Global War on Terrorism from the beginning.

And it does it in a powerful way, Henderson said.

“Americans have a very short memory,” said Henderson, 66 and a family practice physician in Columbus. “For the young people who were born after 9/11, there is no reference point. They know people go to war. Why is this? Well, we were attacked. More people died on 9/11 than at Pearl Harbor. This is a war and we are going after the people who attacked us and continue to attack. They are very committed and are not going to stop.”

Henderson knows about service and sacrifice. His father was in what became the Army Air Corps, and his grandfather was killed in battle in France during World War I. He was a doctor in the Army from 1976 until he retired from the military in 2004.

Military service runs in the family’s blood, which has been spilled in the pursuit of liberty.

“He came to watch me jump out of an airplane; and I came to watch him jump out of an airplane,” Henderson said of his son.

As he stood at the entry into the memorial, Henderson talked about why young people like his son volunteer to fight the nation’s battles.

“If we don’t continue the away game, it is going to be a home game again,” he said. “And this country doesn’t do well with home games. We want it to be an away game, otherwise, they are going to be on Broadway. And if you don’t believe that, then you lose sight of why we are sending our fortune and our blood overseas. We are spending fortune and blood so we can keep this nice.”

‘They got it right’

As Henderson moved deeper into the memorial, and the story of the Global War on Terrorism, he was struck by the nine bronze statues. They are larger than life, standing 7 feet tall and weighing 750 pounds each. They depict an Infantry squad as it would have looked on patrol.

The attention to detail of the sculptures by Ohio artist and veteran Alan Cottrill is striking, Henderson said.

“Who puts a Gator on a sculpture?” he asked, pointing to the hydration pack on the soldier’s back. “The pad in the helmet? Golly, Ned! There are going to be families whose service member will be instructing the family: ‘This is for this, this is for that.’”

He called it the “full battle rattle.”

“What a wonderful sculpture — all the little wrinkles, the little piping on the glove, the switch on the weapon,” Henderson said of the work, which was done in Zanesville, Ohio, and installed a week ago. “These people paid attention. Whoever did this should get an A-plus.”

He compared it to another work of art.

“In the Sistine Chapel, the painters wanted everything right because God knows,” Henderson said. “There are going to be people coming through here looking for one detail. And they are going to say, ‘They got it right.’ That means a whole lot.”

Only one of the statues depicts an actual individual. The soldier leading the patrol, mounted on a symbolic pentagon-shaped pedestal, is Spc. Ross A. McGinnis, a Medal of Honor recipient who was killed in Iraq in 2006.

Hernderson stopped and admired the McGinnis statue.

“Ross McGuiniss trained here,” Henderson said, looking toward the Fort Benning gate. “Everybody should know his story. He was in a gun turret on a vehicle that a grenade was thrown into. Being in the gun turret, he could have jumped out, but he didn’t. He went down into the belly of the vehicle and shielded his buddies from this grenade. He took the full blast of the grenade.”

‘We are at war’

In front of the Infantry squad on patrol stand two concrete posts, holding an angled and mangled steel beam that came out of the World Trade Center’s north tower.

More than 16 years removed from the event that triggered the war, John Henderson has a vivid memory of that day.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Henderson was working a fellowship at the Hughston Sports Medicine Hospital in Columbus. He was listening to a woman’s chest as she was looking up at a television.

“She was an ancient lady, and she said, ‘That airplane just flew into that building,’” Henderson said. “... I thought, ‘This lady is really demented.’ Then I go to another room, and another old person says, ‘Hey, that airplane just flew into that building.’ I thought, ‘What’s going here?’ And then when I looked up at the television, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we are at war.’”

Later that day, Henderson was at Pacelli High School to teach a freshman religion course, when he saw his son, who was a senior at the school.

“Everybody was stunned,” Henderson said. “My son comes into my classroom. I said, ‘John, you are not allowed in here.’ He said, ‘Dad, do you know what happened?’ I said, ‘Yes, and it’s going to happen over and over again until we get our guard up.’ We let our guard down.”

‘Who is this guy hugging me?’

While the sculptures and the piece of the World Trade Center tell one story, the names on the granite tell thousands of stories.

John Henderson Jr.’s story is about how a boy became a man, and then when he was 21 he was gone. It is about a high school football star, a wide receiver, who grew up when he enlisted in the Army after finding out the college life was not for him.

“He came home in 2003 and we were building a 20-foot bridge across a ravine,” Henderson said. “He was on one side and I was on the other side. We were nailing boards into these two rails and we were going to meet in the middle.”

They were listening to Rock 103, a popular Columbus radio station.

“They had a link to the 3rd Brigade and they were about to cross the berm for Gulf War II,” Henderson remembered, “and I said, ‘John, you know those guys are your age who are going to be in this war.’”

An AC/DC song started.

“They said, ‘For those about to rock, we salute you,’ and John lit a cigarette,” Henderson said.

The father told his son again that the soldiers were his age, “and I told him they were protecting him. Several months later, he said, ‘Dad, I think I want to be a soldier.’”

Henderson started his military career on Dec. 29, 2004. He graduated basic training on April 15, 2005, and went straight into Airborne School, from which he graduated in May, and then Ranger assessment.

He was assigned to the 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Just before he deployed, the two men said goodbye.

“I can remember the last time he said goodbye, when he hugged me, I thought, ‘Who is this guy hugging me?’” Henderson said. “He was huge. He had muscles on him and he had a square jaw. He was a totally different person than the person who went in.”

On Aug. 4 , 2005, Henderson and Garza, who was 19 at the time of his death, were on a patrol northeast of Jalalabad. As they started the mission, the vehicle in which they were passengers veered into the Kunar River. Both soldiers drowned that day.

But what the father remembers is the man that his boy became.

“He was a really, really good soldier,” Henderson said. “He was really good. And a fine son.”

He knew what could happen, his father said.

“John knew if he went over there, everybody here would be safe,” Henderson said. “And he didn’t mind doing the hard work, so that everybody here would be safe.”

Henderson suspects he will visit the memorial frequently.

“We have different special days of the year,” Henderson said. “His Angel Day, Aug. 4, is a special day.”

On the anniversary of his son’s death, Henderson does a memorial run with members of the 75th Ranger Regiment. They start at his son’s grave at 3:30 a.m., the time John’s mission started in his last day, and run to the Ranger compound at Fort Benning.

“You don’t want to be morose about it, but there is a lot to celebrate here,” Henderson said. “... John was a joker, he was known as the class clown. These guys would rather have you smile and laugh than shed a tear. But they don’t want you to forget. ‘I will make a sacrifice, but don’t forget what I am about to do.’”

Henderson also runs the Soldier Marathon, with his son’s name on his back.

“I will have guys who will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I was with that guy that night,’” Henderson said. “Then they will tell me a story. That happens all the time. On John’s memorial run, guys will come up and say, ‘I want to tell you a story about John.’ ... It is good for me as his dad to know what kind of person he became.”

More names to come

One of the most striking elements of the memorial is that four of the granite markers are blank.

“It’s unfortunate,” Camp said, “but when designing this we knew we had to leave room for additional names, because this war is not over. ... Every year we will have a ceremony to add the names of the heroes who have fallen.”

Names have been added as recently as two weeks ago.

“When we had the panels made back in March, there have been 20 names we have added since March,” Camp said.

It is current through Sept. 1.

“This is a place where we can reflect on the great price that has been paid for the freedoms that we enjoy and the sacrifices that have been made,” Henderson said.

Last week, it gave Henderson an opportunity to reflect on his son, who has been gone for more than 12 years.

“I lose my composure about John a lot,” Henderson said. “I know why he was killed. I know why he was there.

“I use my faith as a crutch. I was brought up John Roman Catholic. He served mass as an alter boy. The role of a parent is to teach this child how to get to heaven. I gave him all the tools so that he could get to heaven. He just got there before me. That is the unnatural part.

“Children are not supposed to die before their parents. And sometimes that happens.”

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