By Fort Sill Tribune staffMarch 21, 2019
FORT SILL, Okla. (March 21, 2019) -- Staff Sgt. Billy R. Henry was 2 years old when his father Navy Radioman 2nd Class Billy A. Henry died March 17, 1985. Henry drowned while trying to save another person at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Gitmo).
The Navy had erected a memorial honoring RM2 Henry at Gitmo's Hidden Beach, but over the years it had been overtaken by nature, and the beach is now in a restricted area.
The Henry family has never seen the memorial; all they had was a black and white photograph.
When Sgt. Henry learned he had Kappa Lambda Chi military fraternity brothers stationed at Gitmo, he reached out to them about the memorial. The Sailors learned where it was and decided to clean up the site, leave seashells and flowers, and pray.
Almost 34 years later, on March 8, Henry sitting in his office at the Fires Center of Excellence Headquarters Detachment, witnessed the cleanup and service through a Facebook livestream.
"I'm feeling pride in my dad, and pride in the military because regardless of where we are we're family," said Henry, as he watched the broadcast. He added that he was also experiencing "a little bit of sadness."
The elder Henry had been at Gitmo only about a month and a half before he died, said his son.
RM2 Henry and other Sailors were at Hidden Beach when someone in the ocean was having difficulty getting back to shore. That person started to scream for help, which brought Henry and others to his aid. The crowd was focused on the struggling swimmer, and did not realize that Henry did not make it out of the water until it was too late.
The Henry family was still in Charleston, S.C., their last duty station, getting ready to move to Gitmo, when they received notification.
Henry's body was sent to Carthage, Miss., his hometown, where he was given a funeral and buried in a local cemetery. He lies next to his parents.
Sergeant Henry said the only memory he has of his father is of him lying in a wooden casket with the U.S. flag draped on it, and how he was trying to touch his father's face.
"At first I thought that was something that I had imagined, but my mom said that really did happen," Henry said.
Sgt. Henry said he learned about his father mainly from his grandmother because it was too sensitive a memory for his mother, Sheila, to talk about.
"I always felt weird about asking for additional details (from Mom) because I could see I was reopening painfulness," he said.
RM2 Henry was smart, he loved to play chess, he was an outdoorsman, who also enjoyed playing basketball, Henry said. From looking at photographs, he said he looks like his father except for the complexion.
He kept his father's uniforms and tried them on once, noting to his surprise that they fit him.
The Henry's remained in Charleston after the death of RM2 Henry.
Growing up, Henry said he was thinking about becoming a doctor. As a junior at Burke High School he began to work at a funeral home learning all aspects of the business.
In 2003, Henry enlisted in the Army and became a mortuary affairs specialist, Military Occupational Specialist 92M. He later reclassified to unit supply and is now the operations and logistics noncommissioned officer in charge at the detachment.
"That career (mortuary affairs) does take a toll on you," said Henry, who was in Baghdad during the infamous "Black Sunday," when eight Soldiers were killed and dozens wounded April 4, April 2004, in Sadr City. "All of the people who passed away that day, I handled them."
Did Sgt. Henry think about joining the Navy before enlisting in the Army?
"No, actually I didn't," said Henry, who had taken three years of Army JROTC in high school. "I had more experience with the Army."
Today, to access Hidden Beach service members are required to get permission from the senior Navy commander, Henry said. It's normally a two-week process. When the commander heard what the fraternity wanted to do, their application was approved in a couple days.
Lt. William Hooks was one of the Sailors at the cleanup and remembrance. He said it was an honor to be there.
"He (RM2 Henry) gave his life attempting to rescue another," said Hooks. "This is honorable work, for a worthy cause."
Other Sailors and one civilian who participated in the cleanup were: Master at Arms 1st Class Asia Barge, Mass Communications Spc. 2nd Class Kevin Steinberg, Hospital Corpsman Apprentice Reginald Rivera Borgez, Hospital Corpsman Recruit Ethan Cela, and Curtis Weeks.
They said they would be sending dirt from the memorial site to Henry.
Henry said his dad had about 10 years in the Navy at the time of his death, and is sure he would have retired from the Navy.
"I'm now continuing his legacy of service in the Army, and have made it a point to always have his (casket) flag at each of my re-enlistments in honor of his sacrifice," Henry said.
Henry said he plans to visit the memorial after he retires from the Army, but the earliest that would happen is in 2023.