Thank you, veterans


Courtesy of Henley family

Leon Henley served in the Army with the 45th Infantry, known as “The Thunderbirds,” during part of his time in the Korean War.

As always on Veterans Day, I’m thinking of my favorite veteran—my dad. Daddy was barely out of high school when Uncle Sam called his number and shipped him to Japan and Korea during the “Korean Conflict,” which was indeed a war to boys on the front lines.

A master storyteller, Daddy told of his adventures in Korea freely and in color. Stories of eating misappropriated canned peaches, dodging devastating mines called “Bouncing Betties,” choking down fish heads and rice, and receiving last rites before battle were regular fare in the Henley household.

Bonds built in blood and battles are tight.””

— Laura Smith, teacher

Sometimes his Army buddies came to visit, bringing their families from as far away as Maine. We traveled to New Mexico to reunite with another group, and he and mom went to Georgia annually for another group reunion. Bonds built in blood and battles are tight.

When Daddy died, Army friends, all in their 70s, filled several rows of the church. Some slowed by age or illness, they were loyal, literally until the end. My daddy’s flag-draped casket bore testament to the patriot beneath.

One of his stories told of a friend whose legs were blown off in a blast. While being carried away on a stretcher, the man told his friends, “I’ll be dancing on the docks at the pearly gates when you get there.” They were young, facing death, and fighting for a foreign people in a foreign land.

That’s how he lived life—an often hard life—with humor and grit and honor forged on a battlefield.”

— Laura Smith, teacher

I’m grateful for their sacrifice, for even if they came home alive, they came home changed. Some veterans rarely speak of their experiences. For my dad, speaking of those experiences daily was likely therapeutic. I’m glad he shared, even if I know as an adult, what he shared was sanitized and laced with humor to make it palatable. That’s how he lived life—an often hard life—with humor and grit and honor forged on a battlefield.

From my great uncle George Bruce in WWI, to my grandfather Willis Cato in WWII, to my father Leon Henley and father-in-law John Smith in Korea, to my uncle Larry Haynes in Vietnam, to my cousin’s son who helped topple a regime in Iraq, today I honor all the family, friends and former students who served and continue to serve and protect the freedom and dignity of people across the globe.

Thank you.

Learn more about the 45th Infantry Museum in Oklahoma here.