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She Has The Right Stuff

Beaver Dam woman – former attack pilot – fought to protect U.S. citizens

These days, Jenice Henderson, who at 41 is retired from a 20-year military career, is living outside Beaver Dam, raising her six-year-old daughter, building a house in the country, and serving as a rural town clerk and school bus driver.

It’s a new lifestyle – a sharp contrast from the life she lived as an Apache Attack Helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. As a fighter pilot, she held a role filled primarily by men (less than one percent are women). During her last 10 years of service, she was deployed to Afghanistan three times and Iraq twice, flying many missions with another female pilot. She retired two years ago with the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 3.

Henderson’s role changed as she progressed through 20 years in the military. She spent the first eight years as a 63W All Wheel Vehicle Repairer with an Additional Skill Identifier as a Recovery Operations specialist.  At that point, she applied for helicopter training and was accepted to attend Warrant Officer Candidate School with additional training as an Army helicopter pilot.   For her final 10 years of service, she piloted the Apache helicopter.

The high point of her career was becoming an aviator, she said. “Every time I stepped into that aircraft, it made me proud of who I was and what I was doing.”

“The service is not about you as an individual,” Henderson says as she explains how her responsibilities changed through the years. “It’s about your fellow comrades and the soldiers you are providing for and protecting. As a squad leader of 10 soldiers I was tasked with protecting and training my troops. As a training non-commissioned officer, I was charged with providing training to my Company of over 300 soldiers. As an Apache Pilot I had the duty of protecting any ground troops in need of the Apache’s capabilities.”

Upon finishing flight school in 2002, Henderson was among the top graduates – a feat that qualified her to fly the Apache, among three other aircraft such as the Chinook, Blackhawk and Kiowa Warrior. “I chose the Apache because of its seek and destroy mission,” Henderson said.

“The Apache helicopter (AH64) was designed as a tank killer, but has rebranded itself as the U.S. Army’s most versatile, most lethal and most sought-after asset.”

At 58 feet long, 16 feet tall and with a weight topping 17,000 pounds, the Apache is designed to hold two aviators in tandem. Both compartments (seats) of the aircraft operate exactly the same, except for starting the engines (which is reserved for the back seat) and guiding the missiles with a laser (which can only be done from the front seat).

“Primarily the pilot sits in the back seat and flies while the co/pilot gunner sits in the front and engages the enemy, but both seats are capable of accomplishing the mission,” Henderson said, noting she performed in either seat. “The seat I chose depended on the mission to be flown.”

While she loves to fly, Henderson says there were some very scary moments. “The most frightening time for me on missions was hearing something going wrong with my sister-ship’s aircraft over the radio. It takes your head out of the ground game and puts you in a recovery mode. No pilot wants to be in the position to have to abandon troops who are in contact with the enemy to redirect the focus on saving themselves or their aircraft.”

Thankfully, Henderson was never injured. “But my aircraft has seen better days after a few missions,” she said.

“Being a part of something that made a difference, that saved lives and made people feel safe was a very gratifying experience.”

It was 1991 when Henderson graduated from high school in Illinois and joined the Army in 1992. What led her on that path? “It’s every little girl’s dream – action and adventure,” she said, noting her father was in the Navy and is a Vietnam veteran now living in Beaver Dam.

Her basic training took place at Fort Jackson, South Carolina where she ‘took the bull by the horns’ and was nicknamed Gladiator by her Drill Sergeants. “I dove right into the life and loved every minute of it except for kitchen duty,” she said. “I charged forward in every task and really loved basic training, never backing down or giving up.”

After basic training she went to Advanced Individual Training at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. During those first eight years of her military career (prior to her training to become an aviator) she was stationed in the States as well as in Korea and Germany, working primarily as a mechanic. Then she applied for helicopter training and was accepted to attend Warrant Officer Candidate School with additional training as an Army helicopter pilot.

Upon completion of flight training in 2002, Henderson was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, Air Assault, Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Two weeks prior to her arrival, the Division had been deployed to Afghanistan to commence what is now known as the Global War on Terrorism. “Not long after, I was on a plane to meet my new Company in Afghanistan.”

Five months after returning from Afghanistan, she was deployed to Iraq in 2003, again in 2005, then back to Afghanistan in 2008 and 2011.

New life after retirement

Henderson retired in 2012 and lives just outside Beaver Dam. “I wanted to be close to my family whom I had not seen much of the previous 20 years. My parents are here, and my sister is in Illinois.”

In her new life beyond the military, Henderson says the pace hasn’t slowed much. “I don’t really have any downtime. I am a mother of a six-year-old, the clerk for the Town of Westford, a bus driver for Johnson Bus Services, and owner of two dogs, four cats, eight ducks, and 19 chickens. Plus, I have a house to finish building and a yard to maintain. After all that fun stuff, I love to read with my daughter, go camping in the summer, explore Wisconsin and experience all it has to offer.”

While her daughter is too young to realize details of Henderson’s role as an aviator, she is aware of it. “She would come to the flight line and watch me land after being gone for a while on training missions. Now, when we see helicopters flying or are at an airshow, she always says, ‘Mommy you used to fly helicopters!’”

Henderson is quick to admit she misses flying. “If a helicopter popped out of thin air in my back yard, I would fly it every day, everywhere — to Walmart, to my sister’s house, to drop my daughter off at school — everywhere. I miss my comrades too. Most were an absolute joy to fly and work with.”

Piloting the Apache – What it took

To qualify as an Apache Attack Helicopter fighter pilot, Henderson says she had to maintain a high state on the Order of Merit List (OML) during academic and initial flight training. “When the aircraft types are released for selection if you are at the top of the OML you choose first,” Henderson said, noting she worked at maintaining a high position on the Order of Merit List.

Her initial flight training included an array of challenges. “There was instrument flight training, flying with no outside visual references, commonly called flying by the seat of your pants; combat skills training; making the aircraft maneuver smoothly, stealthily and quickly to avoid detection and being engaged; and night flight — getting from point A to point B at night with night vision goggles.”

“Once in the Apache, you went through the same steps as initial flight training. The difference being that the Apache has guns, BIG guns, and you have to learn how to use them safely and effectively,” Henderson said. “Also the Apache uses a night sensor called the Forward Looking InfraRed to fly at night. It is much, much different than flying with night vision goggles and, at first, much more difficult. Most of the missions I flew were at night.”

“It is an experience of a lifetime. I didn’t know I was going to be a lifer until I became an aviator. The military is not for everyone, but if you aren’t afraid of hard work, mental and physical challenges, and want to be part of something that will be with you forever, try it.”

As for those of us learning of Henderson’s involvement in protecting our soldiers and helping maintain our freedom – a genuine thank you goes out to her. It was a job well done– and we wish her the best in her “new” life.

Military awards & achievements earned by Jenice Henderson include the following:

Meritorious Service Medal 2nd Award, Senior Aviator Badge, Air Medal 4th Award, Combat Action Badge, Army Commendation Medal 7th Award, Army Achievement Medal 4th Award, Army Good Conduct Medal 2nd Award, National Defense Medal 2nd Award, Afghanistan Campaign Medal w/2 stars, Iraq Campaign Medal w/4 stars, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Ribbon, Global War on Terrorism Service Ribbon, Korea Defense Service medal, Army Non-Commissioned Officers Professional Development Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Army Overseas Service Ribbon 5th Award, NATO Service Medal (Iraq-Afghanistan-Sudan).

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