By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneMarch 17, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--With every step, Jenna Henderson is going forward into her future.
For a long time, it seemed that proverbial saying "One step forward, two steps back" was coming true more often than not for this military wife, whose life had revolved around her husband's Army career.
But, these days, Henderson's forward steps aren't doing much backtracking. Rather, they are leading her into a future that promises more happiness than she has known since Father's Day 2007.
That's the day Henderson's world turned upside down, when she was told her husband would not be coming home, when she heard the painful words of loss from an Army chaplain who had personally known her husband.
Sgt. 1st Class Chris Henderson, 35, was killed June 19, 2007, in Panjway, Afghanistan, when an explosive device detonated near his vehicle. He was assigned to the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Wash., but attached to the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division (Transition Team), Fort Riley, Kan. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
For a year after her husband's death, Henderson and their daughter Kayley continued living at Fort Lewis.
"We had the same neighbors, the same schools. It was like Chris was just on another deployment," Henderson said. "We had all of Chris' buddies there. We were still surrounded by military life."
But, eventually, a move had to be made. Henderson chose Madison, a bit randomly, knowing that a few good friends, including Emily McFall, another Soldier widow and now the coordinator of Redstone's Survivor Outreach Services, lived in the area and that Redstone would allow her and Kayley, then 9, to continue to take advantage of military benefits available at an Army installation.
The move also put Henderson closer to home in North Carolina, but not too close. She wanted time apart from her own family to learn how to live with her loss, and to reflect on her own life's direction.
"I've always been independent, even with Chris because he was always deploying. He was never home," she said. "I wanted to get my own roots put down. I wanted to get Kayley and me to a place where we could be our own family together. I wanted us to have time to connect with our own feelings and to eventually reconnect with family.
"I read somewhere that on average widows move two or three times. You have to find a place where you can get settled and figure out where you are going in life. You have to have a place where you can figure out who you are and where you want to go."
But with the move came the brutal force of reality. Henderson could no longer shrug off her husband's death, she could no longer think of him as being on another deployment.
It was a complete shock," she said. "The civilian community here doesn't understand like a military community does. The schools are a lot different. For the first six months, I kept asking myself 'What did I do'' and 'Should I regroup and go back to Fort Lewis'' I'm glad I chose to stick it out because now I'm going forward."
While here, Henderson became a founding member of a widow support group at Redstone known as My Soldier, My Fallen Hero with two friends -- McFall and Soldier widow Tiffany Little. She has watched the support group become the seed for the much larger Survivor Outreach Services sponsored by Army Community Service. She continues with the My Soldier, My Fallen Hero support group, and has participated in community efforts to bring awareness to the sacrifice of the nation's fallen heroes and the families they've left behind.
"Our group started with three and now we've gone to eight or nine," Henderson said. "We've grown and we're not just war widows anymore. We are all military spouses, but some of the husbands have died in accidents or from sickness.
"We started the group almost four years ago. When I was in a group like this at Fort Lewis, I looked up to the widows who had made it to the three- or four-year mark. I want this group to look at me and know they are not always going to be where they are. There is hope beyond that day when their Soldier dies."
Even with hope, there are days when Henderson has struggled with her own issues related to her husband's death. Her daughter, too, has had to come to terms with being a young survivor.
"Kayley had to start over when we came here," Henderson said. "It was hard and it stayed hard because she was known in elementary school as the kid whose dad died in war.
"This year, in middle school, she is in a much larger school and she has blended in with kids who don't know what's happened. She has really blossomed. Kayley says 'I'm normal this year. I'm not the kid whose dad died.'"
Even so, challenges are leading to a new shift in the pair's lives. Henderson and Kayley, now a sixth-grader, have decided to move on. They will be leaving the Redstone community to move closer to family in North Carolina so they can enjoy the support and love of numerous relatives. This past Christmas was the first holiday they spent with family in North Carolina since Kayley was 6.
"I'm at a point where I want to be around my family right now," Henderson said. "Kayley is very excited. She has 10 cousins there ranging in age from 20 to 2. And she's got friends from the summers she has spent there with my parents.
"This has been a good place for us. I like it here. But I'm at the point where I kind of feel stuck here and I'm ready to take a step forward. If I stay here, I will stay stuck."
The timing is also right for Henderson as she gets closer to obtaining her degree in health and wellness management from Athens State University.
"I'm at a point where I've got about 10 classes left," Henderson said. "But, at Athens State, most of those classes are being offered at night. My daughter plays sports. I need family assistance or day classes, or I will have to sacrifice my daughter's sports while I'm going to school."
While swimming has been Kayley's summer sport and a way to make friends in North Carolina, she stays busy with volleyball and soccer during the school year.
"I've seen the way Kayley looks at grandparents and other family members of her friends when she is at soccer games. She watches other grandparents with their grandkids, and I can tell from her eyes that she wishes she had that, too. When we move, she will have that kind of support at her games, she will have family there besides me who will be cheering her on. I want Kayley's grandparents to be involved in her life," Henderson said.
And North Carolina will offer Henderson the opportunity to finish her degree at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. She is also considering going further to obtain a paralegal degree so that she can work on elder care laws as they pertain to the elderly living in nursing homes.
Henderson decided to pursue a career in health and wellness management about a year and a half ago.
"We had gotten the (My Soldier, My Fallen Hero) group established, and Kayley was established in school, and I needed another purpose in my life. I thought 'I've got the VA benefits so why not use them.' I know that Kayley will grow up and eventually leave, and then what would be in my life' I needed a purpose so that I could have my own life," Henderson said.
Another draw to North Carolina is a new relationship with a friend of two years. Henderson is now dating a sheriff's deputy who works in the county where her family lives.
"He is very supportive," Henderson said. "There are things he doesn't understand and that he will never understand. But he tries very hard.
"He's not the first I've dated. But things are more serious with him. I've really struggled with where this relationship may go. I've been trying to find the right balance. I realize he's not Chris. But he's a good guy and he makes me happy."
Whatever may happen in the relationship, Henderson knows her Soldier husband would want her to rebuild her life.
"Chris told me before he deployed 'If anything happens to me, don't pine over me forever. Move on,'" she said.
The relationship has also been good for Kayley, who enjoys her mom's boyfriend and his silly antics as well as her friendship with his 10-year-old daughter.
"Kayley is getting more comfortable with what has happened," Henderson said. "Before, when Chris' birthday came around, I would ask her what she wanted to do to remember. She would always say she didn't want to do anything. So, I would make some cupcakes and that's how we would remember.
"But, this year, when I asked her, she said 'Let's make a cake.' So, we made Chris a cake to remember his birthday."
The pair are also still close to Kayley's dad's family, and visit them in Oregon once a year. Henderson talks regularly to her Soldier's twin sister. Kayley may go to college in Oregon, where the children of fallen Soldiers native to the state can attend state universities at no charge.
But, as they move on, Henderson realizes they will be leaving a little of their lives behind. Kayley will have to say goodbye to good friends, and leaving the support of the Redstone community and the support group adds a sense of loss to the excitement of moving on. Their new home will be about two hours from Fort Bragg and Henderson plans to travel there once a month to participate in their SOS activities.
"The Army has come a very long way in the services it provides from when Chris died until now," she said. "This post has become really active in trying to help ...
"The support group here has helped me tremendously every day and I am going to miss it so much. It has helped me more than any kind of counseling could have because it has connected me with others who get it. Talking and sharing with other survivors makes you feel normal and makes you feel like you are not alone."
That is also why Henderson feels she must remain connected to an SOS program, and she is thankful the Army has made this a standard at its installations so that she can continue to benefit from participating in survivor groups no matter where they move. She and Kayley are also active in Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a national organization that held a weekend survivor's workshop at Redstone in February and that invites survivors to regional programs throughout the nation. The Hendersons have also participated in a TAPS event at Fort Lewis and four annual national TAPS events held in Washington, D.C. each Memorial Day weekend.
"TAPS has helped us a lot," Henderson said. "I know people throughout the country that I can pick up the phone and call. These are people who walk in the same shoes I walk in.
"Kayley has a mentor (at the TAPS national event), who is in the Air Force, who is basically a big brother for her. He's been there every year and has become a big part of her life. They cut up and they hang out and they journal about Chris. They visit Arlington Cemetery together. It's really good for her to be around him and other kids who are in the same situation, and who share some of the same emotions and questions she has."
TAPS workshops provide several informative and lifestyle classes for the adults who attend. During the event last Memorial Day, Henderson was introduced to running.
"I ran during the summer and fall, and I ran a 10K last October," she said. "I started running to see how much healing it provides. I just ran the other day for the first time since winter. There is such a peace with it."
Henderson has participated in a TAPS fund-raiser run, running in honor of her husband, and hopes to participate in a TAPS run in August in Alaska.
No matter how far forward their lives go, Henderson and Kayley will always include their Soldier in their lives. The love the family once shared with their Soldier continues with them.
"We won't be taking his pictures down in the house. But we will be adding more," Henderson said.
"There are days when I still feel cold and take two steps back. But then I take five or six steps forward. That's the way life is."