EAST HODGDON, Maine — Sgt. 1st Class Aaron A. Henderson, 33, wanted to make a difference with his life, and according to those who knew him, the Aroostook County native was doing just that when he was severely injured while on patrol Sunday in Afghanistan.
Henderson, a member of U.S. Army A Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, died Tuesday at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan from wounds from an improvised explosive device.
“From what I have been told they were on foot patrol around some of the poppy fields al-Qaida uses to get their money,” the Rev. Randall Burns, lead pastor at Military Baptist Church in Houlton, said Tuesday. “That is what is so frustrating about this, those bombs are so indiscriminate [and] it could have been one of their own who was killed, but in this case it was a son of our community and whom we loved dearly and who loved dearly.”
On Tuesday all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation and Gov. Paul LePage each issued statements of condolences to the Henderson family, lauding his military service and sacrifice.
Those who knew Henderson, a 1997 graduate of Hodgdon High School, said he had a personality and character that touched and left a lasting impression on each person with whom he came in contact.
“I first met Aaron when he was 12 years old and we had just arrived here,” Burns said. “I remember his mother and he showing up with a pickup, ladders and cleaning materials and setting up to wash our windows and help clean the house.”
From that moment on Aaron Henderson — along with his parents, Dallas and Christine, and elder brother, Sam — were integral parts of the Burns family, the pastor said.
Aaron Henderson was predeceased by his father, who died in early 2010 from a heart attack.
“Aaron and Sam were more like cousins to my own children,” Burns said, recalling that he’d had dinner with Aaron Henderson in early August near Mount Katahdin just before the Green Beret was redeployed to Afghanistan.
“He was excited to be going back,” Burns said. “He’d been before and had also served in Iraq; Aaron loved the people there and loved handing them the knowledge that he had.”
That love for his fellow man came through loud and clear, Burns said.
“Anybody he would meet he would make feel really special,” he said. “He was a man of few words but had a real special character about him.”
That character carried through Henderson’s life, right to the hardwood floors and grass fields of his schools’ basketball courts and baseball diamonds.
“Aaron’s family had a tradition of being a part of and supporting athletics from peewee [to] junior high,” said Marty Bouchard, principal at Houlton High School and former Hodgdon coach. “So by the time I was fortunate to inherit him, he was a well-sculpted athlete and a fine young man.”
Both Henderson brothers were on the 1996 Hodgdon High School Class C state championship basketball team, Bouchard said.
“Aaron and his brother Sam were both a pleasure to have on that team,” their former coach said. “They played well together and reaped the benefits of that.”
A solid point guard for his team, Aaron Henderson, who scored more than 500 points in his high school basketball career, may not have been the tallest player on the floor, Bouchard recalled, but he was all heart and was always a team player.
The year after winning the state title, Hodgdon returned to the playoffs seeded in eighth position and facing the top-ranked school.
“We went in and won that game in an upset,” Bouchard recalled. “Aaron was a key player and had a wonderful game that night.”
Henderson also spent four straight years as a starting player on the school’s baseball team as shortstop, pitcher and batting cleanup, Bouchard said, leading the team to four consecutive Class C playoffs.
But there was more to life than sports for Henderson, Bouchard remembers, and the transition from supportive teammate to dedicated soldier was a logical one.
“Aaron was always a pleasure to talk to and, when you coach a player, you have discussions about life and goals,” he said. “Aaron always wanted to help other people so he went on to serve his country [and] not just for short stints, but for numerous years.”
That was the kind of man he was, Burns said.
“He always put others first, which is why he was in our military,” Burns said. “He wanted to make a difference [and] he was the cream of the crop.”
This was a man, Burns said, who truly cared for others, whether it was opening his stateside home in Tennessee to a hometown friend or delaying starting his own family while serving his country so as to spare them the pain of losing a husband or father.
Three years ago the Henderson men joined Burns for a bird hunting trip to his home state of South Dakota and it was obvious how close the three were and how determined Aaron Henderson was.
“I remember Aaron had this saying, ‘Let’s do this,’” Burns said. “The taller the weeds, the rougher the terrain, he was all over it — it was just in him to lead and rally.”
Retired physical and environmental science teacher Malcolm Nesbitt remembers a young Henderson, who, if you didn’t know him, might have appeared to be up to something.
“He was a great kid with a great sense of humor,” Nesbitt said. “I remember his smile — it was almost like a smirk, as if he was trying to get away with something, but it just curled up at the edges.”
Henderson’s decision to enter the military came as no surprise to Nesbitt.
“He would have wanted to make the world a better place,” he said. “I’m not surprised he found his niche there.”
The death of Henderson is hitting this southern Aroostook community hard, Bouchard said, where crosstown rivals Houlton and Hodgdon high schools are banding together in his memory.
“It’s devastating,” he said. “When something like this happens in a small, rural community it reverberates all across it.”
Burns said he had spent some time with members of the Henderson family Monday night and Tuesday and they are mourning the loss of Aaron Henderson in private for now. He added that members of Henderson’s military unit had arrived to help the family cope in any way they could.
“There is nothing so horrible as the weeping of a mother whose son is gone,” Burns said, adding he is confident Henderson would want people to make the most and best of their time on Earth.
“Two weeks ago, I used Aaron’s saying in my sermon,” Burns said. “I told my congregation, ‘As my dear friend and brother Aaron Henderson would say, let’s do this.’”
Funeral plans or memorial services for Aaron Henderson had not been announced as of late Tuesday afternoon.