When heroes come home

by Jen Lynds

Sometimes, it is easy to get lulled into focusing too heavily on all of the things that are wrong with the place you call home.

That is certainly true in Maine, particularly in a rural region like Aroostook County, where jobs are scarce, drug abuse has taken hold and the population is shrinking more and more with each passing decade.

But as residents across the state and beyond saw last week, even when things here are bad, people step forward to showcase all that is good.

Less than two days before the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Henderson were to be returned to Houlton, people began mobilizing to honor his sacrifice.  The 33-year-old U.S. Army Special Forces soldier died in Afghanistan on Oct. 2 from wounds suffered in an improvised explosives device attack on Sept. 30.

News spread via the media and social networking sites of a planned motorcade that would contain family members, vehicles from several branches of law enforcement, firetrucks from multiple towns, motorcyclists from veteran’s organizations, and more.

The procession, led by the hearse carrying Aaron’s flag draped casket, would weave through Houlton and Hodgdon in order to drive by places the young soldier loved in life but could no longer physically reach in death.

An hour before the start time, hundreds of people began lining streets along the route. Some people clutched homemade signs or pictures. In Market Square, a young couple handed out small flags for people to wave. Employees stepped out of stores and businesses to bow their heads as the hearse passed. So large was the motorcade that it took four and a half minutes for it to travel by.  Some people, knowing that the procession would travel through Market Square twice on the way to the funeral home, ignored the biting wind in order to have the honor of paying their respects twice.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to offer the Henderson family something, even though we knew we could never return to them the one thing that they wanted most of all.

On the day of the funeral at Houlton High School, members of various veterans organizations gathered as they had at the previous four funerals for area soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, clutching flags at all of the entryways, opening doors for mourners and preparing to render a fallen comrade one final salute.

Inside, the 1,200 people in the crowd included a number of individuals who did not know Aaron at all.  Many were teenagers, dismissed by area schools so that they could attend the service. There were current students from Hodgdon High School, wearing their blue and white school colors, the same colors that Aaron wore when he played on their sports teams before his graduation in 1997. There were students from Greater Houlton Christian Academy, there in support of Aaron’s brother, Sam, who coaches the boys’ varsity basketball team at the school. There was an older woman who lost her nephew in Vietnam sitting near a mother who currently has three sons in various branches of the military.

Shortly into the service, I was struck by a young Marine sitting solemnly in his dress uniform, looking barely old enough to have enlisted. He was likely just eight or nine years old on Sept. 11.

A short distance away was a mother who had just sent her 18-year-old son off to basic training at the same base where Aaron had been headquartered. It had been more than nine years since the invasion of Iraq. She, like most of us, probably thought that the wars fought there and in Afghanistan would be over by now.

I couldn’t imagine the mixture of emotions that the two of them were feeling.

Three soldiers who had served with Aaron eulogized him during the services, and each man mentioned how overwhelmed they had been by the number of people who lined the motorcade route and who came to the funeral. Their reactions reminded me of an experience documented by Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, who eight years ago volunteered to escort home PFC Chance Phelps, a Marine killed in action outside Ar Ramadi, Iraq.

During the trip, Strobl recorded his feelings about the journey from the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base to Phelps’ hometown of Dubois, Wyoming. Along the way, he also saw how a tiny town honored a fallen soldier with flags, signs, and moments of silence along a motorcade route. He was also impacted by the more than 1,000 people — family, friends, veterans, and strangers –who attended Phelps’ funeral in the gymnasium at the local high school.

“I wondered how many people would be at this funeral if it were in, say, Detroit or Los Angeles–probably not as many as were here in little Dubois, Wyoming,” he wrote.

He eventually crafted his notes into a 12-page narrative that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. In 2009, it was the basis for the movie “Taking Chance,” starring Kevin Bacon.

Aaron Henderson was buried last Wednesday in East Hodgdon Cemetery in Hodgdon, right next to his father and just a short distance away from his mother’s house.

In a comment on the Bangor Daily News website under the article about the motorcade, a reader thanked him for his service and sacrifice, and lauded local citizens for their patriotism and respect.

“This is how ALL fallen soldiers should be welcomed home,” he wrote.

The respect paid to Aaron was the same given to the four other soldiers from this area that we have lost to war. No one soldier drew less attention. No one hero outranked another. No one man was less revered.

We owe a debt to Aaron, and to all of our fallen soldiers, one that we will never be able to repay.  And while we cannot always preserve jobs or businesses or our population, memories are something that we can hold on to.

We will remember Aaron. We will tell his story.

That is something that, in the coming years, the family will likely value even more.