For many Veterans service does not stop when they leave the military. Just ask Charlie Henning, he has led a life of service to others. This is part 1 of a 2 part series.
Bill Krieger: The views and opinions of the guests of the “Me You Us” podcast do not represent the views and opinions of Consumers Energy.
Bill: Hello everyone and welcome to Me You Us, a wellbeing podcast. It’s another well?being Wednesday here at Consumers Energy. I’m your host, Bill Krieger. Today, my guest is Charlie Henning. Charlie is a retired postal worker, as well as a Marine, not a former Marine, not an ex?Marine, but a marine through and through.
Today, we’re going to talk about service, both in the military and after the military. Charlie, if you’d introduce yourself, we’ll get the conversation started.
Charlie Henning: I’m Charlie Henning. I live in Zilwaukee, Michigan, not Milwaukee. It’s a nice, small little town, probably about 1,800 people here. We are off the river Saginaw River. It’s nice, good people around here.
When I was growing up, I went to school here to the ninth grade. We had a kindergarten?to?ninth?grade school. All my friends were here, and we formed relationships all the way up to the ninth grade, until high school.
My father died when I was 13. Being the oldest of 10 children, I was cast into that area where I’ve got to be the big brother and stuff like that. I did OK for a year or so. Then, when I graduated from high school, I found a little way to be rebellious and things like that.
I had long hair back in the ’60s. It wasn’t common at that time, so I had a little stigma around me if people knew me and things like that. I’d also been an altar boy, so it was a big change.
Charlie: People weren’t quite used to me doing that after being an altar boy for quite a few years.
I graduated from high school, and I was working in a machine shop and everything. My brother was going to go into the Marine Corps, and he talked to me about it. I had no inkling of going into the service at that time, but I was lost. I wanted to get on the right path, and the Marine Corps had what it took to get me on the straight path.
He and I went down to the Marine Corps. We were going to go on a buddy program, which means you go together to boot camp and you get to see each other, so it was like family and stuff like that.
We went down there, and they sent me back on the day we were supposed to ship out because I had asthma and hay fever when I was younger. I had scarring on my lungs, so they sent me back. I thought, “Well, my brother’s on his way.”
About four hours later he comes in. They didn’t send him neither because he had a health issue. [laughs] My health issue got cleaned up quicker than his did. I end up going ahead of him. I was a month ahead of him in boot camp.
While I was at boot camp, it just so happened that one day in chow line he was in the next platoon next to me. That’s the last time I see him until we went to Vietnam. He’s still around and everything like that. It’s something that we did.
Bill: It’s interesting. I didn’t know this ahead of time ?? that’s why we do these interviews ?? is that you’re actually from Zilwaukee. I have found in my time during my military career as well that a lot of us come back home at some point for lots of reasons. It must be nice to be back here in your childhood home.
Everything’s familiar to you although I’m sure things have changed a little bit as well, just like the altar boy growing his hair out.
Bill: The buddy program doesn’t sound like it really worked out well for you and your brother although you did get to see him, it sounds like, once. Now did your brother also go to Vietnam?
Charlie: Yes, he went to Vietnam. As a matter of fact, I was in training to go over there. I had just gotten married a couple weeks before I went, never intending of coming back because Vietnam back then was a scary place. I was a little older than most of the kids that went in. I was 20 years old at the time. I didn’t have any grandeur ideas of coming back.
I figured I’d just get married and provide an income for my wife, my daughter, and stuff like that. My brother calls me up. He says, “Chuck?” I says, “Yeah?” He says, “You don’t have to go to Vietnam.” I says, “What are you talking about?” He says, “Well, I just volunteered to take your place because they can’t send two brothers over at the same time in a combat zone.” [laughs]
I looked at him. I says, “Hey. You’re talking about the Sullivan case here. They can’t send the last male that carries on the family name. You’ve got six brothers at home that can carry on the family name. I’ll see you over there.”
Bill: His little plan didn’t really work out. Did it, Charlie?
Charlie: “As much as he loved me, it didn’t work out.”
Bill: I’m assuming the other six either were too young or didn’t want to go.
Charlie: They had gone into the army a little bit after that and stuff like that. I said, “Well, I’m glad you got my back, Bud, but I’ll catch you over there.”
Charlie: It was cute that he thought about me.
Bill: Did you see him when you were over there at all?
Charlie: I seen him one time. The day I was supposed to rotate back to the States, he got shelled over there. I didn’t know…
Charlie: …if he made it. I wouldn’t leave him until I found out.
Bill: How long was it before you found out?
Charlie: I found out about four or five hours after that he was OK. Then I came back.
Bill: Longest four or five hours of your life, I have to imagine.
Charlie: It was. He came home I think about a month/month and a half after that. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth it not knowing.
Bill: There’s this brotherhood that we have being in the military. There’s a special brotherhood that you have being in the Marine Corps, but this is your actual blood brother as well. That had to be very difficult.
Charlie: It was. It was. I was happy to come home. After knowing that he was safe and everything like that, it made it a lot better. It was good. It was good.
Bill: You came home. How long were you there?
Charlie: About 11 and a half months I was there.
Bill: What kind of things did you do when you were there? What was your job?
Charlie: My job was to go out. I went to school and flew by there to learn how to decontaminate vehicles and stuff like that. Then I was embedded with the 5th Marines, 11th Marines artillery unit, the 7th Marines, stuff like that. I stayed with them, made sure they had everything squared away and volunteered to go out on patrols with them because a marine is a marine.
You train as a rifleman. That’s what you’re trained as. Being over there, you didn’t feel like you were doing anything if you couldn’t help. Even if you were an office person, you were still out in the thick of things because you had to run the unit diaries and stuff out there. You had to run patrols. You had to do guard duty out there and everything else.
Just because you’re a clerk doesn’t mean you weren’t in combat. I think people get the idea that you’re working behind a desk. No, that’s not true. You can be on the front lines, work behind a desk, and pick up your rifle because you’re getting overrun. That’s the way it is.
Bill: For the listeners, that’s one of the things about the Marine Corps. Everyone’s trained as a rifleman infantry. Then whatever you do is secondary to all of that. Really, the Marine Corps ?? first in last out.
Bill: You went over there. You did all of this, clearly survived, came home. What was it like coming home?
Charlie: Unless you’ve been there or done that, back in those days the anti?war especially Vietnam, the people hear about the Hare Krishnas, that they were in the airports. LA Airport, any airport that you went into, Chicago, places like that. They were all there. What you hear is true. They spit at you. They called you baby killers and stuff like that.
You took it because you’re still in the military. You want to do something to them, but you got your code of ethics. You’re still government?owned. You can’t be doing stuff like that. It was difficult. When I came back home here ?? because it’s such a small community, I didn’t have that in my community. It was different.
[inaudible 10:17] is made up of a lot of veterans through a lot of wars. They understand. When we grew up here, your kids stayed here, too. A lot of the people that I grew up with are still living here. Got their parents’ house or something like that, because that’s the kind of community it is.
It was fairly easy to come back here because they understood. Then you shy away from groups and crowds. You have to go ahead and figure out what’s best for you, and what you can do. Like I say, I was a little older than a lot of those kids over there. I had a little bit more seasoning and a little bit more life experiences.
My coping mechanisms were probably a little bit raised at that time. I went ahead and worked on that. Things that would bother somebody else may not bother me as much. They bothered me, but not to the point where I’d react, overreact, or something like that.
I’ve always worked on my coping mechanisms because you don’t want to go through life messed up, especially when you got a family and everything like that. [laughs]
Bill: I completely agree. My experience coming home from combat was vastly different from yours. One thing held true for me. People have said this. I didn’t get it until I actually experienced. They’ve said, “It’s really hard to go to war, but it’s almost harder coming back.” What do you think about that?
Charlie: It is, because it does definitely change you. It changes you. When you get on a basic, it changes you, but it changes you for a good thing. When you come back from combat, it changes you. You don’t know how it’s changed until you come back to the world and you react. People say stupid things, put you off. It’s a trigger.
It depends on how you can cope with it and how you adjust to it. After all these tours that these kids have gone over for Afghanistan, Iraq, I really feel sorry for them because of the fact that they’ve done so many deployments. All you have to do is go one time to be taken care…You’ve seen it.
You go two, three, you don’t have a time to regroup. You go another time, you go another time. You come back here, and you say, “Well.” You expect it here, too. You don’t know. You got to hide away and hold everything in reserve because people don’t know what’s going on out there.
Lately, in the last 10, 15 years, they understand PTSD. You can get PTSD for anything. In combat, that’s a different type of PTSD. That’s something in the memories, in the flashbacks, will always stay with you. It’s a matter if you can compartmentalize them, put them away, and try to think of the good things.
Bill: That’s interesting because I have PTSD myself. I went through a lot of years of treatment. I got done with my treatment, I thought, “Well, this is fixed. It’s like a broken leg. Now my mind is fixed.” What I found out was that’s not necessarily true. You’re right. It doesn’t go away. We learn to deal with it.
We learn to compartmentalize it. We learn to understand it. We learn to live with it. You’re right. It never goes away. In fact, you asked me how my drive up here was today. My drive was amazing. It’s beautiful out and everything else.
That little tinge of anxiety was…I don’t even know why because I haven’t felt that way in a while. It was there, but I recognized it. I didn’t let it control me. I did the things that I needed to do to take care of it. I get what you’re saying about that.
It sounds like once you got back home. It was a little bit different experience. I don’t want to say made it easier but made it a different experience for someone who maybe didn’t come home to a town as welcoming as Zilwaukee is. Now, you said you got married read before you left. Were you still married at this time when you came home?
Charlie: Yes. As a matter of fact, my wife, Mary, passed away in 2018. We had 48 years that we were together. That’s pretty darn good for a military man to have a wife for 48 years.
Charlie: She raised my four kids for the first seven years of their lives because I was deployed quite a few of times. Not in combat zones, but in Marine Corps, you’re always on deployment someplace. She would take care of the kids and everything like that. She was really good at that. She was really, really good. I miss her.
Bill: I bet you do. I’m sorry for your loss.
Charlie: Thank you.
Bill: That’s amazing. Over 40 years of marriage. You’re right. Surviving, not just being in the military, besides having survived coming home from combat, and all the things that come with that. That’s an incredible love story. I think that’s probably a whole podcast episode all by itself. In the few times, we’ve talked, your wife to sounds like an incredible woman.
Charlie: She is. She still is. She was. The kids, man, they miss her. The thing is, I’d like to get this out there, that I’ve got a grandson that is going to the Marine Corps. He told me yesterday. He’s got a ship date. It’s hard for the family, any family, to have a grandson or a son go to service not knowing what’s going to happen to him. If he’s going to come back and things like that.
I understand the feelings completely. I got to thinking that it’s harder on the family back here than it is on the individual over there. When I was deployed all those times, I knew I was safe. I knew where I was. I knew what was going on. They don’t back here. Every day, they worry, especially if it’s a first?generation grandson, a son, or something like that.
It’s the people back here that are really, really, really hurting. It’s sad. I try to convey that to them that I feel your pain. I understand where you’re coming from. Write letters, call them, talk to them, whatever it is, just to ease their mind and so they know that you’re OK. It’s hard not knowing.
Bill: You’re absolutely right. I’ve been on both sides of that. I have deployed to combat myself, and then I’ve been home with the kids when my wife deployed into combat. I got a taste for both sides of that equation.
When you’re in and you’re in it, you’re just doing what you have to do every day to survive. For me, it didn’t catch up with me until I came back and I wasn’t in it anymore, right?
Bill: When you’re home, you have a lot of time to think about that person who’s deployed. I couldn’t agree more. Write letters home, let people know you’re OK. I had made an agreement with my family that I would not tell them how bad it was there if they wouldn’t tell me how bad it was here. Stuff always goes wrong when you’re not home.
You came back, but you stayed in the Marine Corps. How long were you in the Corps?
Charlie: Almost nine years originally. Then I really planned to make it my career because I loved the Corps. I loved it. My wife mentioned it to me one day like wives do. It wasn’t really a mention. It was like an ultimatum. “If we want to stay as a family, you’re going to have to get out of the Marine Corps because I can’t stay moving around.”
We moved around, moved around, moved around. I wasn’t at home and stuff like that. She said, “We can’t stay a family when you’re in the Marine Corps.” I had a decision to make back then. I got rid of all my uniforms. I kept two sets of uniforms. Got rid of all my own dress blues and everything because I knew I couldn’t afford to buy new uniforms again.
That forced me to make that decision because I couldn’t. Throw a coin. Toss a coin. Whatever it is, I had to do something that would make me make a decision. I got rid of all my uniforms except for two. I said, “All right. I’ll get out. I’ll get out.” I did. I was lucky enough to get a job at a postal service there. I was a letter carrier for 37 years.
I believe in destiny. I believe that’s the way it was supposed to be. I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it.
Bill: As a letter carrier, you did some pretty interesting things. I read some newspaper clippings you didn’t just deliver the mail. I know at one time there was an apartment fire and you didn’t just call the fire department, you did some other things. Can you talk a little bit about that particular instance?
Charlie: I was on my route and I think it was about a year after I come back. There was a fire. It was a grease fire, one of the bottom apartments. I happened to be delivering mail there at that time, and I smelt it and the fire alarm went off and I’d seen where the smoke was coming from.
I knocked on the door and the guy, Sydney Oliver, was in there, and he had a grease fire and the smoke was billowing out of the apartment and stuff like that. He’s trying to put it out with a tablecloth or towel or something like that.
I said, “Man, you got to get out of here, you can’t control that.” He assured me that he would get out. I knew it was a 12?unit apartment there, and I knew there were some people in there, I didn’t know how many. I’ve been on the route for like 23 years, so I knew who was around and stuff like that. I went upstairs and knocked on all the doors and stuff like that.
A lady was up there, she was elderly and she was watching a young child, probably about seven, eight years old. I got them down, then I went downstairs, and then smoke was pretty thick then. I checked to see if Sydney was out of his apartment and he was. Then I went outside and the fire trucks came.
He said he already called the fire department at the time. I continued to finish up my route that day. It was a little late getting back to the post office, but it was justified. [laughs] They didn’t penalize me.
Bill: I was going to say, they didn’t dock your pay or something for that, did they? [laughs]
Charlie: No, it was justified.
Bill: I could imagine. [laughs]
Charlie: I smelt a little smoky, but it was justified. It was OK.
Bill: Nice. You were recognized for that. If I’m not mistaken, you went to Washington DC with your wife. Did you go with your own family or…?
Charlie: Just my wife to Washington DC. Between Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, I think it is. They pick a regional hero for that year. They picked me out of the three states to represent the Central Michigan hero of the year. They gave us a week in DC and gave us an award and stuff like that.
Took us to see the memorials and stuff like that, which if I wouldn’t have went there, I wouldn’t have seen the Vietnam Memorial. It was pretty nice. It was pretty nice, but it was an experience.
Bill: Oh, that’s pretty incredible. Now I don’t know if I got these two things out of order. There was another time, too, where there had been a car accident or something. It seems like it might have even been a little more serious for the person involved in that. What happened there?
Charlie: It was probably about a mile from here. They were redoing the road there. There was gravel on the road. The lady lost control of her car and slipped into a drainage ditch. Well, if you’re from the Midwest and you know what drainage ditches are, they’re huge. They’re maybe 30 feet wide and maybe 20 feet deep.
Depending on the year, it depends on how deep the water is. Her car went into the water. She was submerged in the water. There was one man down there already when I stopped. He says, “Help me.” I went down there, and I took a look. The lady was in the car. She couldn’t undo her seatbelt. All the windows were rolled up. She couldn’t get out. She was hysterical.
Someone gave me a brick. I broke in the back window and then went in and got her unhooked. We dragged her up to the bank there. By that time, other people had come to help. She wrote me a letter. That one there was a little bit more dramatic than the fire one because she was actually in the water drowning. I was shaken up a little bit about that one there.
She wrote me a letter after that saying that she appreciated me and how do you thank someone that saves her life and stuff like that. I was just happy that she came out OK and everything and got to be with her family and stuff. That’s all that matters.
Bill: If we look back from that point to the time that you’re in the postal service, it’s just a continuous life of service through the Marine Corps, staying there for nine years, joining the postal service. I know people who complain about their carrier all the time. That’s not an easy job. [laughs] That is not an easy job because you guys are out there doing it when no one else is.
It’s just that continuous service that I see throughout your life. Before we get too much further along though, I know in that period of time when you were working with the postal service and probably in the Marine Corps for a little while you had kids. How many children do you have?
Charlie: I’ve got four. I’ve got two daughters and two sons. They’re all doing well. They’ve got their families. They’re all doing well. I see them quite often. They come over. They like to go swimming. [laughs] The thing with that is they grew up with a mother that showed nothing but love to them. That mother also calmed me down a lot.
She helped me be softer and less negative. Because of that, I’ve become like she was in a way. The kids respect me for that. It was because of her that I’m like that. That’s the way she lived. She loved everybody. Everybody loved her. I always thought to myself, “I’m a lucky man. How many people can really say that you are truly loved and know that you’re loved?”
You can say, “I love you. I love you,” when you go out the door. How many people can actually say that they know that they’re loved? I don’t know. I was.
Bill: Sounds like you all were.
Charlie: I was, yes.
Bill: Absolutely. When you think back on your life with the kids and with your wife, is there a favorite family memory that you have, like a favorite thing that happened? For me, there’s a lot of those. I could usually point to one or two. Is there a favorite family memory?
Charlie: Well, one that sticks in my mind is we went to the Kellogg’s factors when we went on a vacation one time. The girls didn’t want to wear the mesh nets on their hairs. They had to. When we took a picture of them, they were really sullen?looking. They didn’t want to be there. I told them, “You got to keep the mesh nets on.”
Bill: It’s the rules. It’s the rules.
Charlie: It’s not a picture if you don’t put the mesh nets on, right?
Charlie: They did. They look pretty forlorn in that picture there. I think that one there was probably the one that sticks in my mind most with vacation. We always went to Cedar Point because back then I had a travel trailer. We’d go there and spend a weekend in the campground there. We were able to trust them to go ahead, to go to Cedar Point, and to do things.
They enjoyed that a lot. I enjoyed doing that with them, too. Just being around the kids and knowing that they could bring their friends to our house. There was no judgement because they did have some friends that were not well?liked by their parents and things like that. They could always feel safe here. To this day, the grandkids do the same thing.
You bring your friends over. Bring your baseball team and come over and swim in the pool. There’s no judgement here. You are who you are. That’s how we live our life. I think that was the thing that my kids grew up like that. They’re like that.
Bill: It’s a great legacy.
Charlie: It is. It is.
Bill: It’s a great legacy. It sounds like, though, at some point during all of this you decided to join the Marine Corps Reserve. I don’t know if you were like me. There was a point where I was missing the military, so I joined the National Guard. Is that what happened with you?
Charlie: Yeah. I got calls to come back in and stuff like that, but my wife wasn’t having it. I understood it. I wasn’t planning on going in. My idea, when I got the calls was, “I’m a full?time Marine, or I’m a no?time Marine. I can’t do part?time.”
After 10 years in 1986, I talked to my wife. I says, “I’m thinking about joining the reserves.” She says, “Why?” I says, “Because I love it. I miss it. I just miss it.” She says, “Are you going to have to go to war again?” I says, “No. I’m in the reserves.” [laughs]
Charlie: I says, “One weekend a month, two weeks in the summer.
Bill: Two weekends during the summer. [laughs]
Charlie: That’s it with pay.
Bill: It’s not true. It is not true.
Bill: I’m telling you, Charlie. It’s not true. Anyway… [laughs]
Charlie: I understand that. I understand that. I was at work one day. It was in December. I think it was ’90 was what it was. I get a call. I’m getting ready to come home. I get a call. The supervisor says, “Staff Sergeant Henning?” I says, “Nobody knows I’m a staff sergeant. What the hell’s going on here?” She says, “You got a phone call.” I says, “OK.” I answered the phone.
It was the admin office over at my reserve unit. He says, “You’ve been activated. Be here at zero six tomorrow morning.” I says, “What?” He says, “You’ve been activated for Desert Storm.” My supervisor was standing there. I says, “You know, I won’t be in tomorrow.”
Charlie: I says, “I just got activated.” She says, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of everything.” That was that. Then the hard thing was telling my wife because she didn’t know.
Bill: Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today. You’ll have to tune in next week to listen to the rest of Charlie’s story.
Thank you to the audience for listening in today. The Me You Us Podcast is proudly sponsored by Consumers Energy, leaving Michigan better than we found it. Remember. You can find the Me You Us Podcast on all major podcasting platforms.
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