HOULTON, Maine — Rev. Randall Burns of Military Street Baptist Church knew Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Henderson for 21 years, way before Henderson became a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier, when he was a just a 12-year-old, liked to play sports and showered attention on Burns’ children.
As Henderson grew older, Burns’ relationship with him became closer, and they shared meals, enjoyed sporting events and even took an out-of-state hunting trip together.
So Burns was shocked when he saw Henderson’s obituary in the newspaper and read for the first time about all of the medals that the 33-year-old had been awarded.
“He’d never mentioned a one of them,” Burns said during Henderson’s funeral Wednesday. “Not a single one. But that was Aaron. He was never boastful.”
More than 1,200 people crowded into the gymnasium at Houlton High School to mourn Henderson, who died in Afghanistan on Oct. 2. Henderson died at Bagram Air Force Base after being wounded by in an improvised explosive device while on patrol on Sept. 30 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
He was a 1997 graduate of Hodgdon High School, joining the Army three years later. He was a Special Forces communications sergeant in a company headquartered at Fort Campbell, Ky. 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.
Govs. Paul LePage of Maine and Steve Beshear of Kentucky on Tuesday ordered U.S. and state flags be flown at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on Wednesday, Oct. 10, in honor of Henderson.
Flags were affixed to telephone poles along the main streets of town on Wednesday, and local businesses had their own signs out thanking Henderson for his sacrifice. Outside Houlton High School, members of the United Vets Motorcycle Club stood with flags.
Henderson’s compassionate, devoted and modest character was the theme of the funeral, which attracted friends and strangers, active military personnel and veterans, law enforcement officers, classmates, state and federal dignitaries and soldiers who served with Henderson during his life. Three of the men who served with him spoke briefly at the funeral, but the bulk of the stories were told by Burns.
Burns said he was shocked that he had never heard about any of Henderson’s medals, especially considering how decorated the soldier was.
His awards and decorations included the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Achievement Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Good Conduct Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with a Bronze Service Star, Iraq Campaign Medal with four Bronze Service Stars, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Noncommissioned Officers Professional Development Ribbon — 3rd award, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon — 2nd Award, NATO Medal, Army Meritorious Unit Commendation, Combat Infantrymen Badge, Master Parachutist Badge, Special Operations Diver Badge, Special Forces Tab and the Ranger Tab.
Henderson’s mother, Christine, and brothers, Sam, Bob and Corey, as well as a large extended family, greeted mourners who began arriving more than two hours before the funeral service started. Henderson’s father, Dallas, died in 2010.
The Green Beret’s body lay surrounded by flowers and pictures at the end of the gymnasium as Burns and the three fellow soldiers spoke of someone they said had found his calling in the military.
Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Sims had served with Henderson since 2007 and spoke of a kind, generous man who valued family, faith and service. He also spoke of how competitive Henderson could be, albeit silently.
He spoke of a day when the two men were helping to unload a military truck. Sims saw that one soldier had grabbed one box, so he picked two off the truck. When he turned around, Henderson was coming toward him carrying three boxes. By the end, Henderson was carrying six or seven boxes at once.
Sims told the mourners that it was clear that Henderson was brought up well.
“You didn’t just wake up and have the character of a person like Aaron,” he said.
Another soldier said Henderson had come to him one day and told him that he was considering making a request to be deployed to Afghanistan, even though he did not have to go. The soldier tried to talk him out of it. Then, Henderson told him his reasoning.
“He told me, ‘I think they need a guide,’” he said. “He felt that there were some young guys over there who could use a senior guy to help them out.”
And so he went.
All three of the soldiers said that they were stunned and appreciative of the outpouring of support they saw on Monday, when hundreds of people came out to pay tribute as the hearse carrying Henderson’s body passed by as part of a motorcade containing family members, vehicles from several branches of law enforcement, fire trucks from multiple towns, motorcyclists from veterans organizations and more.
Burns urged those at the funeral not to forget the Henderson family in the coming months as they deal with the first holidays, birthdays and other occasions without Aaron.
Approximately 100 people also attended the interment with full military honors at East Hodgdon Cemetery in Hodgdon. Three volleys sounded in the quiet cemetery before American flags were presented to Henderson’s mother and brother Sam.