Seeing with the eyes of faith

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Ted Daigle
  • 307th Bomb Wing

In his 23 years as an Air Force Reserve chaplain, Lt. Col. Larry Henderson has always viewed things through the eyes of faith.

Ironically, it was his eyesight that played the biggest role in shaping a career that would have a positive impact on countless Airmen.

His long career helping others in the Air Force nearly didn’t happen. Henderson wanted to join the Air Force right out of high school and his goals at the time had nothing to do with being a military chaplain.

However, he failed the eye exam during his military physical. The supervising doctor at the Military Entrance Processing Station diagnosed him with a detached retina.

At the time, such a diagnosis was a deal-breaker. There would be no military career for Henderson.

“Just like that, it was over,” said Henderson. “All my plans had been based on being in the military and suddenly I had to go and make other ones.”

Those other plans led Henderson to a life of ministry, and for the next 20 years, he pursued that calling, earning a master's degree in theological studies.

But two decades after the initial rejection at MEPS, things suddenly began to change.

Henderson was driving home one day from work when he heard a radio commercial of the Air Force Reserve. In the two decades since his failed military physical, he had come to doubt the MEPS doctor’s diagnosis.

Those doubts, coupled with a strong desire to serve those who serve, compelled him to try and join the military again. This time, the outcome was much different.

“They sent me to a civilian eye doctor who told me not only did I not have a detached retina now, I’d never had a detached retina in my life,” said Henderson.

He joked with the civilian doctor, telling him if that had been the diagnosis 20 years earlier, he could be retired from the military at that point. But Henderson believes the misdiagnosis two decades before was no accident.

“It was one of those God things that kept me out,” he explained.

Henderson realized the misdiagnosis paved the way to his career as a chaplain. Though it had stopped his first effort at joining the Air Force, it had opened the door to his theological studies.

Without it, countless Airmen would have missed out on his wisdom, counsel, and guidance.

He understands now the impact he’s had on the lives of so many Airmen, like those in the 438 Air Expeditionary Wing in Afghanistan. Days after an insider attack by an Afghan colonel left nine U.S. Airmen dead in their unit, Henderson deployed to help, providing comfort and counsel to the grieving survivors trying to cope in the aftermath.

Despite the troubles Henderson has seen in his 23 years as a chaplain, he radiates a sense of calm and joy that comes from serving others.

“My best moments have been when I’ve been able to assist an Airman going through a struggle and help them come out a better person for it,” he explained. “Everyone has faith, but it is my job to help them use it to overcome whatever they are facing.”

Henderson should know. The same faith he relied on to give the Air Force another try after having his dreams dashed twenty years earlier, is the same faith he will use to continue ministering to those in need.

Some of those will be incarcerated veterans he encounters in his role as a chaplain with the Texas State Department of Corrections.

“I try to connect them to their faith and use their pride in their prior service to help with their rehabilitation and remind them of a time when they were part of something bigger than themselves,” he said.

Regardless of where his civilian ministry takes him, Henderson said his heart will always be with the Airmen he met in his Air Force career. He said they were the reason he spent every day he could in uniform, retiring on the very last of his mandatory retirement age.

“I just love being an Air Ford chaplain,” Henderson explained. “I enjoyed being part of the chaplain core and tried my best to be a good wingman.