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 2 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. 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 is part two of my conversation with Charlie Henning. If you did not listen to part one, please go back to last week’s episode so you can be all caught up. Let’s keep the conversation going.
Charlie Henning: I talk to my wife, and I say, “I’m thinking about joining the reserves.” She says, “Why?” I say, “It’s because I love it. I miss it. I just miss it.” She says, “Are you going to have to go to war again?” I say, “No. I’m in the reserves.” [laughs] I say, “One weekend a month and two weeks out of the summer.”
Bill: Two weeks during the summer.
Charlie: That’s it, with pay.
Bill: It’s not true. It is not true.
Bill: I’m telling you, Charlie.
Bill: 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 say, “Nobody knows I’m a staff sergeant. What the hell’s going on here?” She says, “You got a phone call.” I say, “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 say, “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: I want to stop before you tell me that. How long was that drive from work to home when you knew you had to tell your wife what was going on?
Charlie: Actually, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to come home.
Charlie: I wanted her to hear it on the news before I got there because then it came on the news, I believe later, that Bravo 124 was being activated. Then she would get that news. Maybe she would calm down a little bit?
Bill: How’d that work out for you?
Charlie: It did. It did.
Charlie: It did. It did. She was upset, but she knew. I was obligated to do it, and she realized that. It was hard. It was hard for the kids because they were in junior high school at the time. They hadn’t really been around when I was in active duty except the growing?up years.
My oldest daughter, maybe three years when I was in the military that she was around, but she didn’t know much about anything like that. Now, it’s changed. Now, dad’s going to go to war. That’s a different thought process for kids.
Bill: The audience doesn’t have the advantage of seeing this. I saw the newspaper article. There were some very long faces in that picture of your entire family. I could see it. I can see in my children’s eyes in pictures that we took before I deployed myself.
That single picture to me captured the feeling in your house at the time. That must have been very hard for you. You have the sense of duty to your country. You have the sense of duty to your family. Now they’re colliding.
Charlie: It was bittersweet. I got to go on active duty, but at the expense of my family. Now we’re talking a family that’s grown. We lived together for 19, 20 years. Now it’s upheld. It was hard to explain to them what was going on.
Of course, when you get activated like that, the thing that registers in your mind is you going to get killed? Are you coming back? That weighs heavy on a child’s mind at that age. Maybe when you’re younger, two, three years old, it doesn’t.
When you get older and you’ve been around a little bit, you notice it. “Is this the last time we’re going to see him? Is this the last Christmas we’re going to have together?” That’s why I say they don’t know. They worry about you. Let them know you’re safe because things like that, it can mess up a little child.
Bill: You wonder at what age do they figure that out. I remember before leaving myself on deployment that my youngest was six years old maybe, just about to be seven. I was putting the kids to bed the night before deployment. I went to her room, and we were goofing off. She was not being her usual goof?off self. She kept staring at me, and I was trying to figure out what was going on.
I finally said, “What is going [laughs] on?” She said, “I’m staring at you.” I’m like, “Yeah, I get it. You’re staring at me.” I said, “Why are you doing that?” She looked me right dead in the eye and said, “Because I want to burn you into my brain in case you don’t come home.” The kids get it, completely get it.
I can’t even imagine as a 17 or an 18?year?old, because then you really get it. No matter how much we try to protect our kids, they know what’s going on.
Charlie: Exactly. They’re smart. A sense of loss, even though it may not be real right there, even imagine loss is tough. You got to keep them and let them know that when you write a letter home to mama, make sure you mention the kid’s name in there and see how they’re doing and stuff like that.
Back then, we didn’t have cellphones and stuff like that. They knew down FaceTime and stuff like that. I could use it anyways, not that I don’t know how to do that.
Charlie: It’s a little easier now, but it’s still a fact that you’re away and we don’t know what’s happening to you.
Bill: Still not here. You were activated. You got all ready to go. What happened?
Charlie: They sent us to Okinawa. I believe we were the first Marine Reserve Battalion MARSOC train, which is special operations capable. We had the new weapons, and we had the rubber bullets and stuff like that, which was advanced training back then, because of an infantry unit.
We were going to be going into a different type of warfare than Vietnam. We were going to be going into house?to?house fighting. At that time, I believe the thing was like 40 percent of your people will not come back, because it’s a new type of warfare that we were engaging in at that time.
We had to learn different things, how to clear houses and stuff like that, where we didn’t have to do that much in Vietnam. We had to do it, but it wasn’t 100 percent. That’s what we were going to be doing. Was a different type, it was a different type of warfare. This time I was an infantry leader. I was a platoon sergeant.
It was old 369, and I was in charge of a weapons’ platoon. When you get to be a leader like that, and you see it in the movies, you want to bring everybody back. You want to make sure that you’re trained to the best that you can train them so that they do come back.
That’s hard. When I was in Vietnam, I wasn’t a leader like that. I was a follower. I did what I was told to do and things like that. I was concerned about my buddies and stuff like that, but when you get a little higher, you’re responsible for the entire platoon and what they do. That’s higher.
That was a different mindset for me to get into. 20, 30 years later, is a different mindset for me to get into. It weighs heavy on your head. Luckily, the war didn’t last that long, so we got all that really good training. They spent a lot of money with this stuff.
Bill: Good equipment, a lot of good training, and shortest war on the history books, right?
Charlie: There you go. Exactly. What had happened is, my house caught on fire, so they sent me home. The unit went to Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines because it had erupted there, so they are doing humanitarian evacuations back then.
My unit went ahead and went that way because they weren’t needed in the sandbox there. Everybody came back. That’s good. [laughs] That’s good. Everybody came back.
Bill: Absolutely. That’s tough to bring everybody back sometimes, but it is important. As a leader, not only do you have that worry, but people are doing what you’ve asked them to do. If they get hurt or killed because they were doing something you would ask them to do, that’s a difficult one to live with sometimes for a lot of people and for the audience too.
It’s important to note. I don’t know how you felt about this, but I know that in that time that I served, there were times where things were like this. We’re having something start to happen, and then it didn’t happen. Everyone’s ready to go.
There’s a part of you that’s disappointed not because you’re a warmonger, not because you want to go blow things up or hurt people. It’s just part of your military service. Then when it doesn’t happen, there’s a certain sense of disappointment. I’ve experienced that over my career. Did you experience that when this happened or where you just kind of…?
Charlie: It gets all hyped up. The people that haven’t been in it, want to see what it’s like. You know what it’s like. You know what the risks are. There’s a different mindset there in how far you want to go with that.
I would’ve liked to see the guys go ahead and use their stuff but not at the risk of losing their lives. They, on the other hand, are all pumped, hit whenever they’re having some opportunity again. They don’t think about what the consequences might be.
These guys here are reservists. They’ve got families. They’ve got jobs. You’re not like going off to wars in the ’70s. You’re a high?school kid. You’ve got a family. You’ve been a reservist for five years. You’ve established something. There’s a different thing there.
Reservists’ minds are a little different than active?duty minds as far as that goes because they never expected that to happen to them, where active duty, they know, chances are something is going to happen. Everybody’s got a different mindset. You have to get on the same page. I had good guys. I had good guys. They’re willing to learn, eager to learn. I trust them. I trust them.
Bill: One of the many, many lessons that I learned, one of them was that being in combat is not like the movies. If anybody thinks that being in combat is like the movies, quit watching movies because that’s not what it’s like.
You’re right, unless you’ve been there. Anyone who’s been there knows what I’m saying. Anyone who has not been there, just trust me. It’s not like the movies, not even close.
Bill: Your house caught on fire. You came home. What happened there?
Charlie: Electrical fire on the refrigerator there. The kids were home. My wife was in the living room at the time. She smelled smoke, so she got up. She yelled for the two boys because they were in the back bedroom over there. They didn’t answer. The smoke was coming into the kitchen here, so she couldn’t get back there.
She ran out the front door. She tripped on her ankle there. Then one of the ladies came across the street there and gave her a coat because it was in March. It was cold out there. She was outside. She says, “My boys, my boys!”
Then the boys showed up. They had gone to the store and didn’t tell her they went to the store. [laughs] Talk about bittersweet. I think the boys got the bitter part of it.
Bill: Right. She was probably really glad to see them but really angry to see them at the same time.
Charlie: Exactly. Back then, they got a hold of Red Cross. The Red Cross, “Did anybody get hurt? Anybody died?” No. Because of the communications at that time overseas, because the war was just starting or in the process or something like that, you couldn’t get the lines to go all that way. Very, very little telephones are going all that way or anything like that.
Finally, they got a hold of me. That’s about three o’clock in the morning, my time. I asked them if everything was OK and everything. They said yeah. I went and woke up the OD and told him. I said, “Man, I got to get home.”
They got ready to get stuff, but it took me five days to get home because everything is still going on. You’re in the war. Even though it was only $800, you got to prepare for it. You got to do certain things that you can’t let go of, things like that.
Eventually, it took me five days to get here. The coming home was a lot different than the coming home from Vietnam. They had Channel 5 news here, took pictures. They had people. There were balloons. I was just an individual coming home, but they had run that on the TVs for over a week, trying to give me all the stuff like that.
There was outpouring of support and love right there. It was a heck of a lot different than when I came back from Vietnam. It was good. My family was there. People put us up and gave us things and stuff like that. I had a lot of support, a lot of support. It was good.
I only had 11 days to stay here. I had everything taken care of. The war ended, they put me in for humanitarian transfer back here so that I could stay and make sure everything was taken care of. I got a humanitarian transfer from my unit to I&I here. I was able to stay home and get everything back in order and stuff like that, which I thank for. That was good.
Bill: It worked out really well for you.
Charlie: It did. It did.
Bill: You came home. You raised your family. At some point, you retired from the Policy Service. When did you retire?
Charlie: Well, I’ll tell you.
Bill: I feel like this is going to be a story, Charlie. [laughs]
Charlie: Well, the thing is you’ve been in combat, and you understand. The more your mind is doing something, the easier it is for you to sleep at night.
Charlie: I worked, and I knew I was going to work until I couldn’t do it anymore. My mind was occupied. I was working overtime, 10 hours a day, stuff like that. Then when I come home, my wife had something for me to do. I would get to bed maybe 10:00, 10:30, or something like that. I was tired, which was good for me because it relieved me of thinking.
I stayed longer than I could’ve retired because of that because it gave me coping, part of my coping skills. Then my wife got sick. She had come down with breast cancer in 2012. We had done the research on that. We realized that at our age ?? She did chemo and stuff like that ?? it would only add two more years to her life.
We decided that time that we’re not going to go through with that. After two years, we want quality and being together and not sickly and stuff like that. Ironically, she didn’t die from cancer. Then I was diagnosed with it a year later with prostate cancer, but she didn’t die from that. We lived a good time. That was fine. That was good.
Bill: You finally retired.
Charlie: Oh, yeah. I retired. [laughs]
Bill: I was going to say, Charlie, I don’t think you really retired because you’re doing all kinds of great stuff. If you don’t mind, I know your wife passed away in 2018. Clearly, not from the breast cancer that she had in 2012. What happened, if you don’t mind talking about it? If you don’t want to talk about that, you don’t have to.
Charlie: We had a ritual at night. We’d sit here and watch TV. Then she would go in and go to the restroom. Then I would get up. I’d go to the restroom. Then we kissed before we went. Then we’d go to bed. That night she got up. We kissed. She went into the bathroom there. She was taking an extra?long time in there. I went there and knocked on the door. She didn’t answer.
I opened the door, and she was right on the floor. She was dead right there. Just [claps] . It could have been an aneurysm. I don’t know. I didn’t have an autopsy done or anything like that because I knew her mindset. I know what she wanted. Even though I didn’t want her to be gone, I knew what she felt and what she wanted. I knew that she didn’t want to come back.
The funny thing…It’s not funny, but the thing about it is, she died the same day that her mother did 30 years later. The same exact date. She also died the same time that her grandson died in 2012. My thought of that was she knew she was going, but she didn’t tell me a damn thing about it. [laughs] You know what I’m saying?
Charlie: She could have at least given me a clue.
Charlie: I knew what her wishes were and stuff like that. I miss her, but I know she’s happier because of it.
Bill: That makes sense. She kissed you before she left.
Charlie: Oh, yeah.
Bill: My wife and I have our own things that we do. It’s just what we do all the time. I think it is so important to spend quality time with the people you love because you don’t know when it’s going to be that last time that you kiss them or last time that you say goodbye or whatever it is. Thank you for being willing to talk about that.
Charlie: I was blessed. I was lucky. I thought about it after that. I could have woke up in the morning and she could have been dead already, but we were awake and stuff like that. I was blessed that that happened like that.
Bill: You talked about not wanting to retire because you wanted to continue to use your mind and do things. I want to talk a little bit about what you do now. Again for the audience, I’m sitting here in Charlie’s dining room at his house. I pulled up in my car and the first thing he said was, “Let’s hop in the Jeep. I want to show you something.”
He took me down to the park where he does work with other veterans though the VA’s, the Veteran Administration’s MOVE! Program. First of all, how did you get involved with that? I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that you don’t just sit around and do nothing. You seem like a pretty active guy. How did you get involved with the MOVE! Program?
Charlie: After my wife passed away, I had to find something to do. I started going to the VA, taking up their classes over in the PT room there. They would show me different exercises and stuff like that. I was free to go down there while they were open and do whatever I wanted to do.
They were working on veterans. They were helping veterans walk, move their hands, balance, and things like that. I was down there every day doing my own thing. I got to know a lot of the veterans down there. I talked with them and stuff like that.
When COVID hit, I couldn’t do that anymore. I missed that. I missed being with people that I either trained with or they have the same experiences I have. They understand.
I was humbled because the fact that these guys were worse off than I was. I can free roam around. They have to go on appointments and do these things because they’re hurting. They may never get better, but they’re trying. They don’t have a leg. That humbles you.
When I couldn’t do it anymore, I got involved with the MOVE! Program there and Sonya, thank God. Her staff got involved with that. When the COVID hit, I said, “I got the mayor, he’s my cousin, he’s Vietnam veteran. He’ll help us do things.”
We got the park down here to move because they couldn’t do it and enough people there because everything was mask and stuff like that. We got it coming over here. We started out a little just to move and stuff like that.
The guys we got right now are in the late 60s, early 70s, but the movement and the mental part of the camaraderie after we do the little exercise and stuff like that, is tremendous. This has been going on for two years now. We’d like to get younger vets involved with that because there’s other things that we can do for younger vets.
We’re only stopped by the fact that when you’re seven years old, you’re not as agile as you used to be.
Bill: I tell people, 57, I don’t bounce anymore. Is that where you’re at?
Charlie: [laughs] Exactly. I don’t ever bouncing my step.
Charlie: I’m like, “Yeah, I can still step.” We like to get other veterans involved in that for other things. The MOVE! Program is such a good program. Nutrition, mental and physical, it’s all that stuff that helps the veterans stay alive. If you’re going to sit at home, you’re not happy. That’s not a quality of life, that sure isn’t.
We don’t talk about war stories and stuff like that, we talk about family. We talk about work when we used to work. We talk about why we stayed at work so long…
Charlie: …didn’t retire earlier, things like that. We know each other. We know what we’ve done. We’ve been through it and that’s a connection, and we can talk freely. The mental part of it is better than the physical part, I really do. That’s what we try to promote, and you do what you can. If you can do it, that’s fine. Try if you can and we’ll go from there.
Bill: If someone who’s a veteran is interested in the MOVE! Program, who would they contact? What should they do?
Charlie: There’s a lady over at the VA, her name is Sonya Mack, and she’s a coordinator with the MOVE! Program. She’s got a fantastic staff, nutritionist, PT people. All kinds of people there that she has that I tell you, these are the sweetest girls in the world. If you talk to the veterans, they’re not there for the paycheck. They’re there for the veteran.
You can tell that. You can tell that they used to come in on Saturdays when we had COVID. They used to do virtual things, which they still do to help the vet. Now, do they have to come in on a Saturday or something like that? No, but they do. They take their time and they do that because they’re concerned about us. Even us old farts, they’re concerned about.
Then they have the yoga class, that’s a chair yoga that’s basically stretching and breathing. That’s very simple to do, and they promote that. People come in and they get involved and they do these things. They feel better. They feel better because they’re doing something productive. It’s a good thing. It’s a real good thing.
Bill: If you’re in the Saginaw, I’m assuming this Saginaw VA that you’re talking about?
Bill: They can contact Sonya Mack at the Saginaw VA. I think you could probably contact your local VA wherever you’re at if you’re interested in the MOVE! Program. It probably won’t be a MOVE! Program like Charlie Henning’s MOVE! Program, but there are programs out there for folks.
You’re right. It is so important not just to move, but to stimulate your mind and be around people. At least I find that. Charlie, it’s been great sitting here talking with you. We could probably talk for two or three hours, but we are coming up on the close of the podcast.
Before we go, is there anything that you would like the audience to take away from our conversation today?
Charlie: I just want to say thank you to all the mothers, the fathers, the husband, the wives, those family member who served their country. Whether they came back or didn’t come back, it doesn’t make a difference.
They all had the chance to go into combat. They signed up for that. They knew that. If their number wasn’t called, that doesn’t make them any less a military man. They were there. I just appreciate all the sacrifices that the families made. I wish you well.
Bill: Thank you for that, Charlie. Let’s not discount your service to our country in so many different ways. Thank you for that. Thank you for being willing to come on and talk with the audience today. You might have inspired a few people.
Charlie: I hope so. [laughs] Please, you younger vets, come on out. Do my obstacle course, please. [laughs]
Bill: Charlie has laid down the gauntlet for you younger veterans out here in the Saginaw area. Even if you’re not in the Saginaw area, come on up and visit Charlie during his MOVE! Program here.
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. Be sure to go out, find us, and subscribe.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact the suicide prevention lifeline at 1?800?273?8255. That’s 1?800?273?8255. If you are a veteran or know a veteran who is in crisis, you can call 1?800?273?8255 and press 1 for the veterans’ crisis line.
Bill: Remember to tune in every Wednesday as we talk about the things that impact your personal wellbeing.