HOULTON, Maine — Less than a month ago, Jeff Swimm of Houlton had a surprise encounter with his friend and former colleague, Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Henderson.
The two met in a grocery store while Henderson was visiting his family, caught up for a few minutes and exchanged phone numbers.
So when Swimm got a text message Monday telling him that Henderson had been severely injured in an improvised explosive device attack in Afghanistan, his heart sank. His stomach lurched. He sat at home and wondered if there was anything he could do.
The next morning, he awoke and checked Henderson’s Facebook page. And that’s when he learned the truth.
Henderson was dead. There was nothing he could do.
“I saw all of the [memorial] messages on his page and I think I cried for about an hour,” Swimm said Wednesday. “I mean, I just saw him three weeks ago. It’s crazy. I just saw him.”
Henderson, a member of U.S. Army A Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, died Monday at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan from wounds suffered in the attack on Sept. 30 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Henderson was a Special Forces communications sergeant in a company headquartered at Fort Campbell, Ky., according to information provided Wednesday by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
This was his fourth deployment in support of combat operations.
Henderson completed three deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom before his most recent deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Swimm and Henderson met when they were teenagers, having just graduated from high school and taken jobs at a Houlton gas station.
Hardworking, kind and close to his family, Henderson had a personality “that just stuck with you,” Swimm said Wednesday.
“He was quite a character,” he said. “We would hang out after work and on weekends sometimes, and we had a lot of fun together. He loved to fish and was really into sports. We worked together for a couple of years.”
Lori Weston, community development director for the town of Houlton, said it was Henderson’s “gregarious” character that helped draw him close to her three sons. The friendship meant lots of get-togethers between the two families. Henderson’s mother, Christine, and older brother, Sam, live in Houlton. His father, Dallas, a successful insurance salesman, died in 2010. A beloved figure in the community, Dallas Henderson once jumped into a swollen river behind his office to save two teenagers who had been swept away by the current and were struggling to get to shore.
“Our families just melded together immediately,” Weston said. “There were lots of baseball and basketball games. Aaron was just such a unique guy. You felt his presence when he came into a room. When he talked to you, he really talked to you. He focused. He listened. Everyone else and everything else just melted away.”
Being a Green Beret was a “natural fit” for Henderson, she said.
“He was doing something on a grander scale to help people,” she noted.
Her three sons are devastated and in disbelief over the death of their friend.
Weston visited the Henderson family Tuesday evening.
“Their hearts are shattered,” said Weston. “They are still mourning the death of a husband and father. Christine described it as ‘surreal.’ It’s just almost too much to bear.”
Henderson had a tight bond with his older brother, she said.
“Sam and Aaron weren’t just brothers, they were best friends,” said Weston. “It was Sam who was first notified that Aaron had been injured. He is inconsolable.”
At Hodgdon High School, which Henderson graduated from in 1997, a sign outside the school states: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Henderson family.”
On Wednesday morning, WHOU, a Houlton radio station, held a moment of silence on the air before playing music in his memory.
Funeral arrangements were pending Wednesday afternoon.
Swimm, reflecting on that last visit in the grocery store, said he told Henderson that the two should get together for a drink the next time he visited.
Swimm paused as he remembered that final goodbye.
“I wish we’d had that last drink,” he said Wednesday.