For Dr. Hector Henry, there was never a question of "if" he would return to the war zone in the Middle East. It was "when."
That time came in June for the Concord city councilman, who was 70 at the time. He spent the next four months in Iraq on a military base south of Baghdad as one of the oldest people deployed by the U.S. Army Reserves Medical Corps. He returned home in early October.
Henry, now 71, has served in the corps since the late 1960s.
"I have a very strong sense of responsibility," Henry said. "These young soldiers, they are putting their lives on the line. If one of my three boys were there, I'd want doctors there who want to be there."
He previously had been called to active duty during the Vietnam War (although he did not go to that country), and he served in several Middle East countries during the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 and in Germany in 2006.
Henry was supposed to go to Iraq in 2007 but a shoulder injury prevented him from leaving. He told the general who runs the medical corps he would be willing to return, even though he was about to hit the corps' retirement age.
Henry remained eager to return, saying that quality doctors were in short supply.
"I didn't enjoy the sedentary life. ... I like to run on the edge," said Henry, who also is chief of the urology section at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Salisbury and a professor at the Wake Forest University Medical School.
He has also been an elected official in Concord for 30 years. While in Iraq, he'd wake up at 1 a.m. to participate by webcam in Concord City Council meetings. It was, he said, his responsibility.
Henry's wife, Marjorie Benbow, understands how important service is to her husband. "It's his core value," she said, and knowing that made his latest deployment easier on her.
Heat and weapons
For about four months over the summer, Henry's home was a cramped trailer in the heavily fortified Forward Operating Base Falcon.
While the base was surrounded by a concrete wall and perimeter watch towers, rockets sometimes were fired into the camp. Roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices also were set off, he said.
Still, Henry said he felt safe there, and glad he could support the N.C. National Guard's 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team and other troops stationed at the camp.
The real danger, he said, was when he ventured off base. He often left to meet with Iraqi civilian government officials or tribal leaders to discuss medical issues.
Henry, who holds the rank of colonel, always went out with heavily armed escorts. Weapons were everywhere. He also recalled seeing the impoverished living conditions of the villagers near the base, although many homes somehow had satellite TV dishes.
Most days the temperature was 110 to 114 degrees, he said. Some days it reached 130 degrees.
"You kinda get used to it," Henry said.
While there was air conditioning throughout the base, the vehicles were not air conditioned. Every time Henry left the base, he was also wearing 70 pounds of body armor that covered his front, back, side and neck.
But he felt the young soldiers needed to see him out in the villages with them, since they were the ones risking their lives daily.
"It's not like I was kicking in doors and finding bad guys," he laughed. "They won't let me do that."
Henry's primary job was to treat soldiers at the base's medical clinic, which had a small emergency room and several beds. He often was at the clinic from 8 a.m. until 6 or 7 at night.
A 30-minute span in mid-August produced what Henry called his best moment in Iraq.
A severely wounded soldier had arrived whose convoy had been attacked. Part of his leg had been blown out, from his ankle to his knee.
Henry applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and put a splint on his leg, then prepared him to be flown to a military hospital for the next level of care. Next, he treated another wounded soldier with a lot of facial injuries.
Both might have bled to death if it were not for Henry.
"That made me feel like I really accomplished something," he said.
Henry later learned he had helped save the first soldier's foot and leg, and hopes to meet him while he recuperates at Walter Reed Hospital. The other soldier recovered as well.
Henry related his Iraq experiences while speaking in his cluttered office at the Salisbury hospital.
Family photos sit near pictures of him meeting President George W. Bush during a campaign stop and President Jimmy Carter, whom he campaigned for in the 1970s. Several UNC Chapel Hill signs also occupy a place of prominence.
Henry gestures a lot with his hands when he speaks. Even his cell phone ring tone bursts with energy: "The Flight of the Valkyries."
Last month, Henry served as grand marshal for Concord's annual holiday parade. He said it has been gratifying to see the public's support for the troops, regardless of how they feel about the war. It's quite an evolution from his time in the Vietnam War when he was spit on and called a baby killer.
Following his most recent tour of service overseas, Henry said he would not go back again.
Now that several weeks have elapsed, however, he's starting to think, "Why not?"
His wife described herself as "giddy happy" that Henry is back.
But Benbow said that if he did deploy once more, she would compartmentalize her worries again and support his decision.
She understands his sense of duty.
"It's a very rewarding experience ... to give back to your community and your country," Henry said. "To me, that's what makes it all worthwhile."