Jim Henderson returned home from Vietnam on Nov. 1, 1968, the day that President Lyndon Johnson announced the first halt to the bombing of North Vietnam. Reporters were out in force asking the returning war veterans their thoughts on this news. Henderson remembers how he answered a reporter.
"For what it's worth, my answer was 'I'm a professional Soldier and I stay out of politics,'" he said.
The Priceville native entered the Army Reserve in 1962. He graduated from the University of North Alabama, then called Florence State, in 1964 with a bachelor's in math and science and was commissioned as a second lieutenant through ROTC. He retired as a colonel in 1987 with 26 years of service.
Henderson, now a manager at Northrop Grumman and an ordained Charismatic Episcopal priest, arrived for a year in Vietnam in the last week of October 1967. The then 26-year-old captain was commander of the 588th Transportation Company in Cam Ranh Bay.
"You step off the airplane (in Vietnam), no matter how you've been trained, knowing that there are a lot of people out there that want to kill you is a sobering thought," he said.
Arriving from Germany, he knew he had to rely on his training and that he had to take care of his people.
"It was a lot of pressure," he said. "You were always tired. Most of the time you were wet either from the monsoons or sweat. You constantly had an eye toward the threat to your people and you were constantly balancing the mission and the threat to your people. It was hot, which was so different to Germany.
"Even for the support Soldiers who weren't actively engaged in combat day-to-day, you felt so concerned for the ones in the fight dying and getting wounded. You couldn't help but feel some guilt you weren't in their place. I think we (Vietnam veterans) all still feel some of that. The tragedy of it all is always there. I pray for and do what I can for the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans."
In a war zone, Henderson said, "you're going at full speed and the Lord just didn't design us to do that, so one of the experiences is stress and you bring that back with you."
After returning from Vietnam, it took Henderson a few weeks to recover from the mental stress "with the Lord's help," he said.
But he also notes some positives from his experience in the war: "the camaraderie you had, the example of some great Soldiers and officers." He shared a 2010 email from Henry Ball, a Warrenton, Missouri, resident who served in Henderson's unit in Vietnam. Ball wrote in part, "Thanks again for being a great company commander who helped to teach me how to treat others respectfully."
A fateful moment for the company occurred during the Tet Offensive in May 1968. North Vietnamese sapper teams were pushing into the U.S. camps and infiltrating their bases.
"It all kind of came together one night," Henderson said. "I woke up and it was almost bright as day (because of flares). So we grabbed the weapons and ammunition to get into defensive positions. When we got to the base of that ridge, gunships were firing toward the ridgeline toward the North Vietnamese soldiers. It was as bright as day in the middle of the night. I knew we had to get up that hill as quick as we could. In that one moment, I looked around and saw my Soldiers. I looked around at them and they were afraid. And I realized I can't expect them to go anywhere until I do. My duty (as their leader) was to get into position and take care of my people. Finally I pulled up my pistol and said 'Let's go.' And I looked back and they were coming up with me, every one of them, coming up that hill.
"When we reached the top, there were blood trails up there. And we didn't have anybody hurt because the fight was over. That was the night it kind of crystalized in my mind what war's all about. If you don't do that right, you're less of a leader. That night we did what we were supposed to do and nobody got hurt on our side."
Henderson, 72, returned to UNA where he earned certification as a public school teacher in math and science in 1971 and a master's in education in 1973. He stayed to teach ROTC from 1973-76. He has worked in the defense industry ever since retiring from the Army in 1987. Five years at McDonnell Douglas, which subsequently became part of Boeing, were followed by 22 years with Northrop Grumman. He also serves as associate pastor at a new church in Huntsville called Ex Nihilo. And he owns a television station in Decatur.
He was widowed in 1993 by the sudden death of his wife of 31 years, Shelba. Henderson and his second wife, Carol, will celebrate their 21st anniversary in May. Together they have four children and 11 grandchildren.
Henderson serves as chaplain of the Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army. As the group's vice president for ROTC, he returned to his UNA alma mater this year to present the chapter's annual awards to outstanding cadets. He was surprised when he too was recognized as a member of the class of 1964 who was commissioned 51 years ago.
"We really can be proud of our military and the fact they will do what needs to be done," he said. "I was privileged and honored to serve my country. And if they needed old men, I'd be first in line to go back."
Editor's note: This is the 17th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.