For 40 years, Mike Henry has been a fixture at the American Legion Post 5 in Jefferson City. Having served in several capacities to include post commander, volunteering for dinners and barbecues in addition to working as a bartender, he is not only a widely recognized face within the post, but comes from the military background of being drafted during the Vietnam War.
Graduating high school in 1967, the Ashland native attended college for a year before discovering he was not yet prepared for academic pursuits. He then went to work for a local company performing a number of carpentry tasks including the construction of pole barns.
"I had a low number in the military draft lottery, which meant I was going to be drafted," Henry recalled. "Well, my letter came in the mail, and I was inducted into the U.S. Army at St. Louis on Feb. 4, 1970."
Traveling to Fort Leonard Wood aboard a bus with several other inductees, he spent the next two months completing his basic combat training. Instead of being sent to a formal Advanced Individual Training ("AIT" — a military course providing training in a specific career field), he received orders to report to Fort Hood, Texas.
"They placed me in the 63rd Engineer Battalion and classified me as a carpenter," he said. "My training was going to be done through on-the-job training with my company. A little while later, I came home on leave an married my fiancée."
The soldier was thrown a slight curveball when unit leadership informed him the training clerk was scheduled to be discharged in a few weeks. After discovering Henry's military test scores demonstrated he possessed administrative competencies, he was asked if he would accept the position.
The former soldier explained, "Of course I accepted because I would rather do that than be a military carpenter. For the next two months, I trained with the outgoing clerk, who showed me how to complete the work schedules for the entire company, which was my primary duty."
Additionally, he occasionally led classes for his company on various military subjects. It was not long, however, before a levy came down for the company to provide troops for units in Vietnam. Henry was interviewed for possible deployment since he had been misidentified as a carpenter — one of the skills sets needed overseas.
"I informed the guy conducting the interview that I had never worked a day as a carpenter in the service and that I had been working as a training clerk. I believed I was going to get orders to Vietnam and they even sent me to some preparatory training, but the orders never came," he said.
On May 26, 1971, he received an unexpected assignment for an entirely different military opportunity.
"They sent me on 72-day orders to the Army Hometown News Center (AHTNC) in Kansas City, and I stayed in an apartment in the city," he explained. "It was great duty because they gave us expense money, which was much more than my little enlisted salary was at the time."
The AHNTC was established in 1951 with the mission of improving, supervising and controlling the flow of information to hometown news sources. In 1958, it was reported the center was turning out 30,000 items a month to include news stories, photos, radio tapes and television films to ensure every soldier would have their name in print back home at least once.
The program has since become the Joint Hometown News Service headquartered at Fort George S. Meade, Maryland, and continues to publicize the achievements of members of all branches of the military.
"We would get information sent to the center from various training bases," Henry said. "Then I would draft news releases that were sent to various communities about local soldiers who had finished training so they could put it in their newspapers. The staff treated us great and I even played on the center's softball team."
Shortly after returning to his company at Fort Hood in late summer 1971, the Army began offering certain soldiers a 120-day early release due to the massive influx of troops returning from Vietnam. Although he was not slated to complete his service until Feb. 4, 1972, Henry was discharged Oct. 4, 1971, after finishing 20 months on active duty.
His son, Chris, was born five months following his discharge. In the years after his military service, Henry also became father to a daughter, Laura, and a second son, Brian. Utilizing his GI Bill benefit to earn his bachelor's degree in business administration with an emphasis in accounting, he enjoyed a lengthy career working for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
When transferring his membership from the American Legion in Ashland to Jefferson City many years ago, Henry was quickly welcomed into the organization and served as post commander from 1986-87. The U.S. Army veteran remains dedicated to supporting his fellow veterans, all of whom share a unique and enduring bond.
"Like so many of us in the Legion, the military allowed me grow up more than anything and helped me decide what I wanted to make of myself," he said. "My personal military time was a little bland and not full of excitement like some of my fellow veterans, but it was a great experience that introduced me to a lot of good people."
In conclusion, he remarked, "I had the good fortune of being on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., with other area veterans in 2017, and that was a great honor and experience. It reminded me that I served my time and I was proud to do it."
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.