But Colonel Henderson soon asked to move over to combat arms, a transition that Marines who know him said demonstrated that he wanted to fight with his men, bearing the risk and responsibility that accompany it.
Colonel Henderson moved through the ranks at a lightning pace. He was a rifle platoon commander and was promoted to captain six years after joining the Marines. Five years later, in 2000, he made major. Three years after that, he was leading Marines in Iraq as the “XO” — executive officer — for the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines. After Iraq, Colonel Henderson was sent to Afghanistan.
Colonel Henderson “was hard not to like,” said Cpl. Josh Sams, who had the colonel as a battalion commander on his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2008. To the Marine, then 22, Colonel Henderson stood out like an action figure. He did not spend his time barking at his Marines about grooming standards or attire and instead barked at them about how to stay alive.
At one point, Colonel Henderson challenged the entire battalion to a fight after a hazing episode in the barracks rippled through the ranks. Some of the Marines who reported to him called him “silverback,” a reference that is both complimentary and racist.
In an interview published in 2018 by Herocare, a benefits organization, Colonel Henderson spoke of commanding Marines in southern Afghanistan in the most vicious fighting he said he had ever seen.
As the commander of the First Battalion, Sixth Marine Division, Colonel Henderson had to come up with a plan to overrun a Taliban stronghold in the Garmsir District known as Jugroom Fort. It was defended by about 200 to 400 Taliban members who had been fighting the British in Helmand Province, a new flash point in the war.
Colonel Henderson led his Marines through three days of intense battle in blistering heat. By the end, the Taliban fighters withdrew toward Pakistan. It was a short-lived victory for the American-led NATO troops in Afghanistan, and for Colonel Henderson’s Marines as well. The insurgent group would return in force in the following months, bloodying the influx of American troops deployed under President Barack Obama’s surge in late 2009.