Story By Kathryn Vandenhouten Photos By Nelson
Winston Hencely doesn’t consider himself a hero. He says he was just doing his job. He never imagined a confrontation with a suicide bomber would leave him struggling to survive. He’s still on the road to recovery, but the Effingham soldier is defying expectations at every turn.
In November of 2016, the ECHS graduate was an army specialist soon to be promoted to sergeant when he was nearly killed. He recalls knowing instinctively that something was wrong that day. Unlike most Afghan Nationals, the man looked mean and out of place, so Hencely approached him.
“If I see something, I’m going to say something,” he says. When the man ignored Hencely after questioning him, he grabbed the man’s shoulders from behind, and that’s when he felt the vest. “He blew up right next to me.”
The explosion killed five people and injured sixteen. Four died onsite and another succumbed to injuries later. Hencely suffered a penetrating traumatic brain injury and multiple shrapnel wounds. “Shrapnel went in the front of my forehead and lodged eight bone fragments in the frontal lobe, and the shrapnel is still back between the occipital lobes,” he says.
He then lifts his shirt to show a large scar across his chest where he was cut open to remove even more shrapnel from his body. Immediately after the incident, a large piece of his skull was removed due to brain swelling.
Most people celebrate their twenty-first birthdays by going out on the town; Hencely spent his 21st birthday getting a metal plate in his head.
His mother, Vicki Hencely, says she remembers the day of the bombing like it was yesterday.” I was sitting here, and I was watching the news, and ticker tape went across the screen and it said ‘Suicide bomber on Bagram in Afghanistan kills 4 and injures 17,’” she recalls.
When she couldn’t reach her son by phone, friends tried to assure her that she would have gotten a call if something had happened to Winston. Twelve hours later, she got a call from Fort Hood, Texas that confirmed her fears. “I just had that gut feeling. Just that uneasiness. That feeling that something wasn’t right,” she says.
When her son arrived to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., doctors had to prepare her for what she was about to see. “It was hard to walk in and see him on life support and the machines breathing for him, and he’s just shaking because the part of the brain that controls body temperature was damaged so they couldn’t control his body temp,” she says. “It was horrible.”
Miraculously, Hencely woke up from his coma and never looked back. Doctors said he would be paralyzed on his left side, likely never to walk again. Hencely had other plans. “I made a decision early on,” he explains. “I could’ve easily given up and just be in the bed the rest of my life. Have somebody feed me, change me-I could’ve, but what quality of life is that?”
So he did what any soldier would do; he fought. After months in the hospital and multiple surgeries, he never stopped fighting, and his hard work has paid off. “They told me that I wouldn’t walk. Six months later I was walking. They told me that I wouldn’t run-what next?” says Hencely.
If there’s one thing he loves, it’s proving people wrong when they say he can’t do something. “I use a lot of that as motivation,” he explains. “Sometimes you just get dealt a really bad hand. Whining about it doesn’t make your situation any better.”
It is that determination that has gotten him this far. He still has a long way to go on his road to recovery, but after multiple surgeries, months of hospitalization, and ongoing therapy, he is proud of how far he’s come.
“I’ll never be the same as I was, and I’ve accepted that,” he says. His mental scars will last as long as his physical ones. Since the explosion, Hencely has suffered from post traumatic stress and anxiety. The constant fear of danger is never far from his mind.
Fortunately, a service dog, Loki, was donated to Hencely to ease his anxiety, and the two are now inseparable. “It’s just nice to have something you can talk to that doesn’t talk back but still shows some sort of love for you,” he says.
The love and support from the community has been overwhelming as well. Hencely and his family were amazed at the homecoming he received in Rincon when he came back. Hundreds of people lined the streets to welcome him home. There are still yellow ribbons lining the road to his home, put up by friends and neighbors to honor him.
“I’ve never seen so many people come together,” he says. “I want to thank everyone for their support and prayers and everything they’ve done for me.” The homecoming parade, get well cards, and thousands of well-wishes on social media shows the overwhelming support he’s received from family, friends, and the entire community.
“Americans don’t know how good they have it, that’s for sure,” say Hencely. “It’s nice being back in America.” If there is one thing he has learned from his brush with death, it is gratitude. In fact, he says the whole experience has made him a better person.
“It took all this happening to me to realize I don’t deserve anything,” says Hencely. “I’m really more open minded now. I value my life a lot more.”
He wears a memorial bracelet with the names of those who died that day. It reminds him how lucky he is to be alive, and he vows to do something great with his second chance at life. “I have that with me because they didn’t get the chance to live and I did,” he says. “It’s really hard. Every day is a struggle for sure. My body’s getting better, but I have a lot that I need to work on to mentally overcome.”
He still struggles with survivor’s guilt, but he is more focused on the future than the past. “There’s a lot I want to do,” Hencely says. “I want to focus on something in neurology or neuroscience. I have a lot of interest in that and I’ve learned a lot.”
Along with his many coins, awards, and his Purple Heart, he has an exact replica of his skull with a hole in it the size of a fist. To see it is to truly realize how lucky he is to be alive.
Hencely’s motto is “make the rest of your life the best of your life.” No matter how cliche it may sound, he believes he is here for a reason and he plans to live life to the fullest.
“There’s a lot more in store. I have big plans. Be patient with me. I love the support and I plan on giving back,” he says. One of the causes that have become even more dear to the Hencely’s is the Adopt A US Soldier program, which connects supportive civilians to deployed soldiers.
Hencely himself spent months in the hospital, and his mother and grandmother never left his side. Other soldiers are not so lucky. “Walter Reed took a part of my soul away,” says Vicki Hencely. “You can’t visit a facility like that and walk away whole.”
She says the image of sick and injured soldiers with no family was heartbreaking, which is why the Adopt A US Soldier program is so important. “It’s our young kids missing two arms, missing both their legs and don’t have anybody. Their mom’s not there. Their dad’s not there. Their family’s not there,” she adds.
Luckily, Winston had strong family and community support throughout his entire ordeal. In fact, he says that waking up to see his family there gave him the encouragement he needed to get well. “That was key to my recovery,” he adds. “Waking up and having my family there.”
In addition to supportive family and friends, he also gives credit to the staff at Effingham County Hospital, where he continues physical therapy. Little by little, he is regaining strength and mobility.
Winston Hencely will never be the same person he was before he was injured, but maybe he wasn’t meant to be. And though he doesn’t like being called a hero, this soldier’s battle to recover has made one thing certain: he is a fighter.