John Henderson, who has died in Nambour, Queensland, aged 76, was not ‘famous’. He was not a film star, nor did he write legislation, reach the moon, or break world records.
Rather, he was a soldier, a father, a husband, a woodworker, a traveller, a mentor — and a really bad tiler.
But possibly his greatest and bravest accomplishment was tackling his own depression and throwing out a lifeline to one of his sons when he saw him struggling with his mental health.
Maintaining army links
The former Duntroon drill instructor, who contributed to Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove’s military discipline, developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following service in Vietnam in the late 1960s.
On Henderson’s return from war, he was posted to the military academy in Canberra where he was responsible for teaching young cadets how to toe the line — literally.
Earlier this year, the former Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) reconnected with his now-famous student in Stanthorpe, Queensland.
When news of Henderson’s cancer diagnosis and prognosis became known, he received a letter from the Governor-General.
“I want you to know of the respect and affection felt for you by the legion of Army admirers and comrades-in-arms,” Sir Peter wrote of his former drill instructor.
“You are a good man, a great soldier, and you served your nation with pride and distinction. God bless you.”
Boys‘ own adventures
John Patrick Henderson was born on October 21, 1941 in Burra, South Australia, one of seven children to Gladys and Jack Henderson.
The family lived in the very small community of Farrell Flat in the Clare Valley and his childhood was spent like a chapter from a Boys’ Own adventure.
On Friday afternoons, he would take off from school, accompanied by his mates, with a blanket and a pocket knife.
They’d sleep in haystacks, fish from creeks, explore, play and fight before returning home to a hot dinner and warm bath on Sunday evenings.
The Hendersons were not wealthy; his father was a council worker who’d be on the road for a week at a time while his mother fed her family on a meagre wage and rabbit stew.
But that childhood independence and the adventures was, as his son Ian said, his father’s “first boot camp” and set him up for a life in the military.
Henderson actually had his sights set on a naval career and made his way to Adelaide at 17 for a scheduled appointment with the recruitment office.
When he got there, the navy had no record of his appointment and, being determined to serve, he walked next door to the army office, had an interview, returned a week later and enlisted.
There began a 20-year career, with combat roles in Malaya and with 1RAR in Vietnam where he gathered intelligence, often working alone in the field and within enemy lines, for up to 30 days at a time.
“He fought the unknown enemy inside every day of his life after returning from combat,” Ian said.
“He paid a big price for his service. It gravely affected him, his family, his entire life.
“Most people cannot understand just how momentous it is to overcome the black dog, but please believe me when I say, without any qualification, this was dad’s greatest battle and his biggest win.”
Seeking and offering help
Ian said his father relished his role as a drill and ceremonial instructor and loved commanding men.
But while the army made his father, Ian said it “broke him too” and his memory of his dad is of two men — the one before PTSD and the one after.
Henderson eventually received treatment from the army but not until he had the courage to ask for help.
So when he saw one of his sons struggling with his own mental health issues 15 years ago, he knew what to do.
“He reached out, gave me a hand from my darkest corner,” his son said.
“He introduced me to the help I needed. I had to do the hard work myself to get my own cure, but he started me on that road and in later years, we talked a lot about our shared journey.
“My life would be very different without that help.”
Handyman at heart
Despite Henderson only having served in the army for a minority of his life, it remained a major influence on the way he lived.
But not when it came to his tiling skills. Ian says his dad loved being handyman and what he loved most was tiling.
“Which was a shame because he was a s**t tiler,” Ian said.
“His tiling is not uniform, it’s not level, and it’s not even, and only sometimes does it drain.
“So that’s the enigma. He was a drill and ceremonial instructor and a grand master of the RSM ‘pacing stick’ [but] apparently his attention to tiling does not translate from his drill sergeant training.”
Henderson was also a member of the local ‘woodies’ woodworking club, served as president of various RSL sub-branches, drank a tot of rum on Anzac Day with his mates, volunteered on many committees, helped out with poppy services and was a scout leader, soccer coach and AFL umpire.
“He was always the one who upheld the military code of helping a mate. He never left anyone behind,” Ian said.
“He took his humble start and made a rich life from it. We should all do the same.”
After being diagnosed with liver cancer and told he had months to live, Henderson planned his ‘living wake’ in Adelaide.
Family and friends flew in from around the country and on top of the cake he organised: the Australian Infantry’s ‘Rising Sun’ emblem.
John Henderson died on December 14, 2017 and is survived by his wife Maria, four children, three step-children, five siblings and their families.