Heather French Henry tells of family experience tracking down lost military loved one during Memorial Day service

05/29/2016 11:37 PM

JEFFERSONTOWN — Heather French Henry shared her father’s experiences during and after the Vietnam War to underscore the importance of honoring veterans during a Memorial Day service Sunday.

About 100 military veterans, families and supporters gathered at the Jeffersontown Veterans Memorial Park to recognize those who have served in the U.S. armed forces.

Henry, the deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, offered the keynote speech for the event, hosted by the City of Jeffersontown and the American Legion G.I. Joe Post 244.

A longtime veterans’ advocate and a former Miss America, Henry said in her home growing up, she considered her father, Robbie French, Mr. America.

French served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War for a unit nicknamed the suicide battalion, Henry said. He was wounded during Operation Badger Tooth on Dec. 27, 1967, and was evacuated from the war zone.

Her father was one of the lucky ones in his unit, Henry said, recalling the exact section on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall where the names of the fallen men who served with her father that day are etched — panel 32 E.

But French never learned the fate of his best friend in the Marines, Charlie Smith, she said.

He never looked for Smith’s name at the memorial during trips to Washington, D.C., but years later, Henry said she gave it a try by researching books available at the site.

She found many men named Charlie Smith, but only one from Louisville.

“Charlie died in February of 1968 after my father was medevacked out,” Henry said, referencing French’s medical evacuation. “My dad lived most of my life with survivor’s guilt, not knowing what happened to Charlie, probably in his heart knowing what happened but didn’t want to finally know what happened.

“And I remember that phone call of calling my dad and saying, ‘Dad, I found Charlie’s name on the wall. He’s the only one from Louisville, Ky.’ And I got a rubbing for my dad, and the heartbreak across the many, many cell waves back to Maysville, Ky., and hearing my dad break down, it broke my heart, but yet I knew it was a moment that needed to happen because the wall is a wall of healing as well, and in that moment a wall broke down.”

Henry later connected with Smith’s sister by chance during a Christmastime event at a local union hall, and she recognized members of his family in the audience on Sunday.

Henry said she always tried to help veterans with the mindset of how she would have helped Smith, who was a source of admiration in her home during her youth.

She recounted how her father was spat at when he returned home from Vietnam and residents of her small hometown of Augusta, Ky., crossed the street to avoid him in public, and she said more should be done to help living military veterans while honoring those who died protecting the U.S.

“Today we have to realize that the conversation of patriotism, the conversation of sacrifice, the conversation, the cost of freedom has to happen every single day,” Henry said. “Not only among the community, but more importantly among our children.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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