May 28, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
As Mack Brown prepares to leave for his trip to visit American troops in the Middle East, Dallas attorney Scott Henderson remembers.
For Henderson, an all-American linebacker and a three-time academic all-American for the Longhorns 1968-70, Brown's trip recalls vivid recollections of the summer of 1970, when he and other collegiate stars took a similar trip to visit hospitals and the war zone during the Vietnam War.
Thirty-nine years ago this summer, Scott Henderson carried the Longhorns banner that Brown will be taking with him on an eight-day trip that will include stops in Iraq and Kuwait. He remembers seeing the spot where a bullet hit the propeller shaft on the helicopter he and fellow stars Larry DiNardo of Notre Dame, Mel Gray of Missouri and Scott Hunter of Alabama had just flown into a fire camp on.
"What I remember most of all were those moments out in the field, where most of the USO visitors didn't go," Henderson said. " And I remember the hospitals. There is nothing that prepares you for that."
In those days, long before television brought games live to the other side of the world and tapes and DVDs captured the action, all the guys who were traveling as part of an NCAA sponsored trip had with them was some film and a 16MM projector. They spoke to as many as a thousand, and as few as a handful.
"We were never close to the DMZ, but the fire camps we visited were outposts," he said. "That war was really the beginning of some of the kind of warfare we see in the Middle East. The jungle paths could be booby-trapped, and there were suicide bombers, just like we see today. In that way, the fighting was similar."
Looking back, Henderson remembers names and places which later would become a part of history. He stayed at the hotel where dignitaries and journalists were housed. They visited the American Embassy where a few years later people were airlifted by helicopter as the city was overrun by North Vietnam troops. They posed for pictures with South Vietnamese troops and American "advisors" in the Mekong Delta.
"It was a beautiful country," he said. "And I understand that today in much of the country, even though it is communist, it is hard to tell that there ever was a war."
Most of all, Henderson remembers the one on one visits with the GIs.
"Those were in the days when almost everyone there had been drafted, and they served for a specific time," he said. "Every guy we talked to knew to the day when their tour of duty would end...and the Army stuck to those dates."
"The easiest way to start a visit," Henderson said when he returned, "was to ask them what they were doing, and get them to explain some of their business. In 30 minutes time you had a good session going - which was really unfortunate, because we had to leave about the time we got going good. One of the major complaints was that the enemy would start firing on them when they were listening to a football game on the Armed Forces Radio Network. They said it seemed like some of the time the enemy didn't really want to kill you - just make it so miserable you couldn't stand it."
At a time when much of the United States was in turmoil over the Vietnam War, the football players brought a non-political approach and provided a respite to young men their own age far from home, and in harm's way.
"I admire people who still do their job with a great deal of confidence and competence regardless of the difficulty," Henderson said then. Of all the men he encountered, the helicopter pilots drew his admiration the most.
"Without the helicopter pilots, the war would be more brutal, because land travel can be made almost impossible," he said. The bullet which struck the `copter shaft "was just a single bullet and it probably came from three guys lying in the grass, but it only takes one well placed bullet to bring one down."
Almost 40 years later, much has changed in the way wars are fought, but what is similar, Henderson feels, is that those who are fighting and those who are reporting about it seem to always give a different view.
Though his visit was limited in time, it turned out to be prophetic historically. He came away with the impression that, one, reporters often present a biased view of the situation, and two, the United States must be extremely careful how its power is used.
"We had the power and the might, but they (the Viet Cong) just kept the war going until we didn't want to fight any more."
Today, Henderson ocassionally works with a large group of Vietnamese attorneys in Dallas - children of those who evacuated the country as the Communists took over.
"It is a visit that can change your life," he says. "It was a tough trip for us, but not nearly as tough as it was for those guys who were out there fighting for us, and not getting much credit for it back home. We were there for a few hours, and those guys lived every night concerned about attacks."
Henderson returned to Texas in time for fall practice prior to the 1970 season. The Longhorns were in the midst of a 20-game winning streak, a string that would stretch to 30 before it ended in the 1971 Cotton Bowl. He finished his senior season by earning both all-Southwest Conference and all-American honors, and is one of the few players ever to earn first-team Academic All-American honors three consecutive years. After his undergraduate work, he earned a law degree and has practiced in Dallas for more than 30 years.
On the other side of the world, the brief moments he and the other stars had spent had made a difference to those whom they had seen, and all that they had seen had made a difference for them.
"I am so glad that Coach Brown is doing this," Henderson said. "It will be tiring, and there will be things, both good and bad, that will surprise him. Will it be worth it?
"Yeah, it was for those guys. But most of all, it was for me."