Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Memorial Day: Two Owls who served in Iraq

MORE THAN anything, Marcques Henderson remembers the smell. Seeing and hearing the images of war, no matter how graphic, is one thing. But until you experience it for yourself, and really inhale it into your being, you have no idea. For Henderson, it is something that will never go away, for as long as he breathes.

It's the stench of death.

"You can't describe that," he says. "You expect the sights. When you go into that situation, you know you could die today, or the brother right next to you. But the smell, there's nothing in the world that can prepare you for that. Bodies, flesh. It's a different culture when you're there. You think you're ready for just about anything, but that's something that stays with you forever."

Terry Hill knows the anguish. His senses have their own baggage to lug around.

"Absolutely," he says. "There are moments that just sort of creep up on you every now and then. You don't necessarily try to recall them, but they're there. They're part of you... I've cried a few times, I guess. In a way, it gets to you.

"Sometimes it's little things, like getting up from a table, or leaving an area and thinking, 'Where's my weapon?' Because that's something that stays on you 24/7. So for a second you're kind of looking around until you realize it's OK. That's not a part of my life anymore. Things like that.

"In a lot of ways, though, it's always a part of your life."

Maybe it's fitting that the profiles of Henderson and Hill appear on facing pages of Temple's football media guide. Even though they came to North Broad Street from totally different backgrounds, they share two concrete bonds. They're both first-year walk-ons. And each has spent time in Iraq fighting a war that has ignited debate in this country and across the globe. Neither has any regrets. They did what they thought was right. And they would do it again. In fact, there's a chance they might have to, if the conflict doesn't end sooner rather than later.

Henderson, a sophomore tight end who will turn 27 in December, joined the Marines in 1999. Four years later, he was deployed to Iraq at the start of the war, for some 6 months. A sophomore, he's part of the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education program, which means he's still on active duty. He will receive a promotion to lieutenant when he graduates, and plans to make the military his career.

If you call him a soldier, he'll smile and politely point out, "No, sir, I'm a Marine."

Duly understood. He has earned the distinction.

"Freedom is not free," says Henderson, a 6-foot, 255-pound native of Sacramento, Calif., who hasn't played football since the Pop Warner level. "I love a challenge. I take great pride in the things I learned, the training I was given, having confidence in my abilities. I know people don't necessarily agree with what we're doing, but I know we made a difference. That's a great sense of accomplishment."

He is one of 16 children who has relatives on his father's side in New Jersey. His dad, Kenneth, was in the Air Force, so he has lived in San Diego, Hawaii, Florida and Arizona in addition to Sacramento. Two older brothers also are Marines. His brother, Derek, is a tight end for Division III Delaware Valley.

Henderson served as a missionary in Guatemala in 1997, and also worked on a horse ranch in California.

"I've always been used to structure," says Henderson, an international business major. "I kind of feed off that. It's not for everyone.

"Some of [my teammates] believe a lot of the stereotypes [about Marines] from what they've seen in movies. I let them believe it. A lot of it's true. We have a reputation for a reason.

"If they ask me, 'Have you done this?' I say, 'Well, you're a football player. Do you tackle people?' There's certain things that just come with the territory. But I don't talk about it too much."

Hill, a senior who turned 23 in April, hails from Dayton, Tenn., where he attended Bryan College from fall 2001 to spring 2004. His father of the same name is the area representative for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the author of the biography, "Reggie White: Minister of Defense." A 6-3, 255-pound offensive lineman, Hill hasn't played football since his freshman year of high school; he earned three varsity letters in basketball.

The youngest of four children, and the only boy, Hill joined the National Guard in 2000, at the urging of his uncle. Then 9/11 happened. Six months of training led to 11 months in Iraq.

"It was pretty calm, just the weekends, more fun than anything," Hill says, "but all of a sudden it got serious. That's when you realize, OK, that's where the Lord put me.

"There comes a point where you either win or lose, and losing is pretty much death. You have to look at the bigger picture, like a necessary evil. It's not pretty, but something that has to be done."

Maturity comes in many forms. A communications major, Hill has re-upped for another 3-year hitch.

"I know I could go back," he says. "It was a conscious decision. There's positives that stay with you, too. You're part of something bigger."

Like the time his patrol came upon a group of Kurds who were celebrating their New Year.

"We were near the Iranian border," Hill recalls, "going through more mountainous [terrain], and we actually came upon this beautiful place with big fields and green grass. And families were having picnics, all over. We pulled up to one, and I mean the entire picnic must have been 50 or 60 people. They all stood up and began to clap, cheer us and thank us. They even invited us to come eat with them.

"To see that was extremely humbling. It was almost like being at home, as far as feeling welcomed. But you see the other side of it, too."

The death. The destruction. The disregard for humanity. It goes with the territory.

They've both lost friends and comrades. And seen others return home with scars that will never heal.

It's been called Hell for a reason.

"You have to be so focused when you're over there, the life you had almost doesn't exist anymore," Hill says. "You can't be in two places at once in your mind. You can't think so much, 'Why me?' You get used to the way it is, every day. It's funny, but you get to the point where you almost feel safer than walking around the street here. There's a sense of security, like you've got each other's back."

Now they're giving whatever they have to offer to a program that's trying to finally start over. It's not nearly the same as putting your life on the line. But it is about sacrificing for a cause.

That is an attribute not lost on first-year coach Al Golden.

"They have roles in terms of character and leadership," Golden readily acknowledges. "But they also provide us with a unique perspective. You can have tunnel vision. These two really have seen the world.

"The things they've endured, what they bring to the table, add to the team. That's the end result. Many of the things others see as not being tangible, like work ethic, toughness, unselfishness, we see as being very tangible."

Henderson and Hill merely want to do their part, even if the most they contribute is inspiration.

"I hope I'm a benefit to these guys, but I'm the rookie now," Henderson says. "I'm used to being in control. I've had to take a step back. I never lifted weights before. But I'm learning a lot from them. They helped bring back my sense of humor."

Following a pause, he lowers his voice to a near whisper and adds: "I don't know if I ever had one."

Even if they never get on the field in a game, many Owls will look at them in a different light. Perhaps out of nothing more than curiosity. Or in some cases, admiration.

It's not for everyone. The badge of honor extracts a toll.

"I have a king-sized bed to sleep in, air conditioning, three, four or five meals a day if I want," Henderson says of his current accommodations. "It's hard to think of my brothers still over there fighting, and I'm here enjoying life. I talked to my commanders about it. We just can't pull out. We promised to help the Iraqi people. We have to stay until it's finished."

"I made a conscious decision," Hill adds. "It makes you appreciate what you have. I've got a better outlook, taking advantage of every day. As you get older and think about what you've done, how you've lived, I don't want to waste anything. I know what it feels like to be close to death. I want to be doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

"When I first got there, they were having their first elections. Later, they were voting on a constitution. Years down the road, as [Iraq] starts to grow and get its structure back, that'll be a proud moment for me. I'm proud of it now. I was part of that."

And it is a part of him - those indelible sights, sounds... and smells.