We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


The Vacant Chair

I don’t know if it’s fair to say that I miss someone I’ve never met, but I do feel that I do. My father-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Henry Henderson, passed away before I ever met my wife and though I know he was not the easiest man to get along with, I suspect that Dick and I would have been friends.

Born in 1935 down in Uvalde, Texas, Dick grew up outdoors, competing with and conspiring with his brother, much as my own brothers and I had. He must have had the same wanderlust that drove me to find a way out of Michigan, but Dick’s way out was the Army. Commissioned in 1957, he “found a home in the Army”. As a young officer, he met his bride, Mary Lou Cammisa, and took her away from New York on an adventure around the country and the world. While he was stationed in Germany, they drove around Europe, exploring. The stories of the places they stayed and the mis-adventures pepper our conversations with my mother-in-law. Every time my wife and I turn in a rental car in Europe, I imagine Dick and Mary Lou sneaking away and breaking into a run as they leave behind the rental car in which a case of red wine had burst in the back seat. I can even, given the photos and descriptions from my wife, imagine Dick’s quiet, amused little snicker.

The Signal Corps was good to Dick, until it wasn’t. The good part was the training in technology and the advancement in both rank and leadership that occurred over the years. The bad part was over in Viet Nam. Signal Corps doesn’t sound so bad – you’re in the rear areas, and in some cases, he dealt with data processing. How dangerous can that be?

When Melissa and I went to France the first time, we visited the Loire Valley. I was able to connect with a retired US Army Signal Corps soldier – Bill Messner – who had married a French woman he’d met while serving at Signal Station Saumur in the 1950s. Bill had also served in Viet Nam and when we told him that Dick had cancer, Bill told us that a lot of Signal Corps men he’d served with in Viet Nam were dying of that as well. The bad thing about serving two tours in Viet Nam in the Signal Corps was that you had to drive up and down Route 1 a lot, checking and repairing the wires and equipment. So all those Signal Corps men got plenty of their share of Agent Orange.

Dick loved his girls, but Melissa never realized how much she’d miss him until the day of his funeral. He’d been a tough man, inspiring Melissa to write about growing up in his house as “Living with the Gestapo”. Of course, he was just trying to instill discipline and raise his daughter right. He didn’t make it easy for her to be close to him, but she tells me that despite the many times they’d butted heads even into her adult years, she wept uncontrollably at his funeral.

When we hold the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket seminars, they always conduct a ceremony for the missing in action and prisoners of war, both at Arlington National Cemetery and again at the banquet. In this ceremony, a vacant chair and a place setting are laid out for the missing. I always think of the haunting lyrics of the Civil War era song, The Vacant Chair, “We shall meet and we shall miss him. There will be one vacant chair.”

At our wedding, Melissa and I wanted to include her father, so our good friend, Russ, who is a Sergeant in the National Guard (and will be deploying overseas next year) was able to get a Bronze Star with an Oak Leaf Cluster for Melissa to carry on her bouquet to signify his presence walking her down the aisle. When our brother-in-law Steve Murphy escorted Mary Lou down the aisle, he carried Dick’s flag from his funeral in Arlington. As the flag passed Russ, wearing his immaculate dress uniform, he rose to his feet and delivered a crisp salute. Steve placed Dick’s flag on a vacant chair next to Mary Lou, so that his presence would be known to all.

This year at Thanksgiving, and every year at family events, my mind may well drift to the man whom I know would have been my friend. I will thank him for giving me his daughter and I will miss him.

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1 Comment so far
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How we tret our veterans is ridiculous. They gave their courage for our country and deserve to be treated like royalty. Thank you!

Comment by Mikkelson93615@yahoo.com




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