These days,21st birthdays are spent in bars and restaurants, celebrating a new milestone of adulthood. But not for Allan Henderson.

Henderson spent his 21st birthday on an airfield in Vietnam, waiting out the last few days before he’d go home to his beloved Texas.

As a teenager, Henderson believed Plainview, Texas was a “paradise.” It was all he’d ever known, and he looked forward to building a life there. But then his draft number came, twice.

A hearing problem prevented Henderson from being drafted, but just when it looked like he’d be staying in Plainview with his new wife, Beverly, the United States came calling again.

This time, Henderson was officially drafted into the U.S. Army.

Two birthdays in Vietnam

Henderson arrived in country and was assigned to the 48th Assault Helicopter Company outside of Nha Trang, Vietnam in November 1969, just before his 20th birthday. The young man from Plainview spent the next year and several months with an Army combat helicopter unit. His time in Vietnam included supporting the Republic of Korea Army and working as an air traffic controller.

Henderson landed in Vietnam a 19-year-old kid and left a 21-year-old man who’d discovered “another world out there” thousands of miles from Texas.

“You knew you were not welcome”

Vietnam veterans were not given the welcome home that veterans are given today, especially not in the early 1970s. Henderson remembers being spit at and yelled at and having things thrown at him and his buddies when they returned to Oakland, California.

“You knew you were not welcome,” Henderson recalls of his return home to the states. By the time he came home, Henderson remembers that the Army had figured out to keep people away from the returning soldiers to avoid altercations.

Hundreds of Vietnam veterans experienced the same hostility and humiliation when they arrived back in the States. It defined a generation and led to a change in treatment for future generations of veterans.

Henderson believes that has a lot to do with Vietnam veterans’ leadership. “Those are our kids and grandkids [fighting wars],” he said. He believes Vietnam vets won’t let the same things happen to this generation that happen to them.

But those experiences didn’t embitter Henderson or turn him away from life in the military.

A career of service

The life Henderson thought he had for himself in Plainview completely changed when he made the choice to stick with the Army.

Henderson continued his career in the military, serving around the world for 22 years. His military marriage soon became a military family with the arrival of his daughter, born in an Army hospital.

Life has changed in the 49 years since Henderson left Vietnam. He pointed out that in 1969, the country was beautiful but dangerous. In 2019, people go to Vietnam on vacation. That’s a testament to the healing that can take place over time.

All these years later, Henderson keeps connected with the military and veteran community. He’s back in Texas and works with advocacy organizations to ensure veterans of his own generation and the ones that follow are cared for and respected. He enjoys seeing the results of that work when he can make a positive impact for veterans.

Like thousands of other Vietnam vets, Henderson answered the call to serve his country. He did so with honor and courage.

On this Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day, we say thank you Henderson and Vietnam vets all across the country who deserve our respect and gratitude.