MIAMI (CBS4) – Artis Henderson never doubted that she was going to someday, somewhere, meet the love of her life. It was a belief the 25-year-old held on to, even though growing up it appeared to her she wasn’t the type of girl guys easily fell in love with.
“Somewhere deep inside, I had this deep faith,” said Henderson.
It was faith that Henderson had found her true love which led her to joyfully walk the sands of Fort Myers Beach in a wedding gown.
In 2005, just steps from the home she shared with her mother, she married the love of her life, US Army aviator Miles Henderson. In actuality, he had found her.
Recently looking through her wedding album for the first time, she traced the profile of her young, handsome husband as he looked into her eyes that magical day they became husband and wife.
“It was such an optimistic love; there was no sense that anything could happen that we couldn’t get through together,” said Henderson. “I never for a second doubted that we wouldn’t be okay.”
They were just kids in their twenties when he spotted her across the room in a popular local dance club in Tallahassee where she was working as a staffer and intern for a US Senator. Just the thought of Miles falling in love with her at first glance made her blush.
“He looked at me in a way that no one had ever looked at me before. Like he was listening to me, he was paying attention to me. And I felt like nobody, no guy, had ever done that before,” said Henderson.
Henderson first thought it was an unlikely love story. She had long been driven to be a writer and was in search of a story worthy to tell, but her career plans melted when her heart did.
She said she never imagined falling for a military man.
“Not in a million years,” said Henderson.
When they met, Miles was an Army helicopter pilot in training to command the elite machine, the Apache.
It was a first chance at love for a girl who had a second chance at life.
As a little girl, Henderson’s father, who was also a pilot, used to take her out on solo flights all the time. Every flight always ran smooth up until one when she was five years old.
Something went wrong on the plane and her father was forced to crash land the plane. Henderson survived with a crushed spine but her beloved father didn’t.
Yet, despite the loss that broke her heart at such a young age, when she met Miles and learned of his profession as an Army aviator, she didn’t hesitate to allow herself to get close to him.
“No, it was actually, almost the opposite. I thought life is funny because he was a man who really was like my dad. And it felt lucky,” said Henderson.
She hoped luck would ultimately follow Miles to the assignment that loomed on their horizon, Iraq. She reasoned that if she loved him enough, he would come home.
Deployment was months away and putting her career path on pause, they traveled across America setting up houses on one military base after another.
The reality of war didn’t feel real to her until one morning when Miles awoke from a dream.
He was 23 years old and it was nine months before he would be deployed. She listened as he calmly recalled how he dreamed he was in a terrible, fiery helicopter crash, sitting aside another pilot he knew.
“He dreamed of his death. He dreamed of a helicopter crash and there were two pilots in the helicopter, Miles Henderson and John Priestner,” said Henderson. “In the dream they were floating above the helicopter and it was burning on the ground below.”
That second pilot, John Priestner, had been Miles’ mentor throughout the finale of his training in the United States and later turned out to be a mission commander in his unit in Iraq.
“I’d like to think that that dream brought him some comfort because when he told me about that dream, he was not frightened,” said Henderson.
However, the dream definitely frightened her.
After all, Henderson was raised by a mother who was widowed as a young woman, who had to survive a deep loss of her pilot husband. When Miles entered their lives, he brought with him a love and optimism overdue for mother and daughter.
“He made me feel so safe,” said Henderson.
It was a sense of safety and joy that she saw written on both their faces that cherished wedding day, captured in photo after photo. She staved off a sense of dread until the day he boarded a bus in route to being sent to Iraq.
“I really didn’t face it, I mean, pretty much until he got on the bus,” said Henderson.
So what did she see in Miles’ eyes that day?
”I’m not sure that, until that moment, he had really realized what was coming. The distance and the war and I think he knew it then,” said Henderson.
She didn’t want Miles to see anything but love and hope in her eyes.
”I was smiling and laughing and waiving, I wanted him to think that I was okay,” said Henderson as a tear rolled down her cheek.
“I was so proud of him. He was brave and generous; he was so giving and the fact that he would be willing to do that,” said Henderson. “He always said that the reason he was doing that was so that someone else wouldn’t have to, and I just thought how wonderful that he was that kind of man and I had the chance to be with him.”
In the end, their chance encounter was all too brief. After nearly four months of writing love letters to each other from across the battlefield and world, she returned home one night from work, just steps from where they had exchanged vows on the beach and found the door unlocked. Henderson said that at that moment she could feel a chill reach deep into her heart. She found two soldiers in dress uniform and her mother in the living room, waiting for her.
“You know as a military spouse that if you see them, then the worst has happened,” said Henderson.
And it had.
Miles had been killed in a fiery helicopter crash that was hauntingly similar to the dream he had months earlier. Just like in that dream, he died right alongside his mentor, John Preistner. A crash the US military would only describe as ‘under investigation’.
While Henderson waited for answers from the military, one more love letter arrived, it came tucked away in his trunk. Her husband had hoped she would never have to read it, but that if she did and if he died, he wanted her to know how deeply she was loved. He asked that she forgive him for the pain his death would cause her.
She lovingly remembers his words and encouragement.
“He says ‘Live your life to the max, you have so many options with what to do with your life. Pursue your dreams wisely with all your heart, with honor, and with decency.’ What a message,” said Henderson with admiration.
He was an incredible man, he had written the note knowing that she would only read it if he was gone. His last words were “I love you, no worries. Miles Henderson.”
Despite her heartbreak, she glows with gratitude over the integrity and patriotism of her beloved Miles, her military hero.
“He wrote this letter thinking he was going to die and even then he didn’t take back his decision to go. And I find that just amazing,” said Henderson.
After she found the letter she discovered one more keepsake, one she had prayed for.
On his computer Miles had a video he had made for her. He died just before he could mail it. It would be her one opportunity to hear and forever cherish his voice, his face and that smile.
With nervous fingers she clicked play and, filled with gratitude, watched and listened to her beloved on video as he sent her greetings with all his love and admiration for her. He told her how he couldn’t wait for them to be together again and share more adventures.
“I love you. I miss you,” he said into the camera. “Just keep on keeping on. We’ll see each other again soon, babe.”
He signed off with a smile that bespoke love. Two days later, he was killed.
Following his death, channeling her love for Miles, trying to find a place in life that made sense, Henderson directed her attention to her first love, writing. Year after year, she painstaking worked on a memoir that is a tribute to a great man and a great love.
”Love. It’s terrifying and it comes with sacrifices,” said Henderson. “They never tell you that in all these love stories. Love is sacrifice and it can be hard.”
In the end, to the US Military, Henderson is classified as an “un-married widow” but in her heart, she will forever and proudly be Mrs. Miles Henderson.
“Miles is gone but he is still so much a part of me and so much a part of my life, and of this life. I didn’t realize that when it first happened. It’s taken me a while,” said Henderson. “He is very much here.”
And he is very much there, in the pages of a memoir she never dreamed she would write. A devastating loss she wishes on no one, a soldier’s wife, anyone’s love. But she hopes that the gift Miles left behind for her, the power of true and timeless love, is forever etched in history, imprinted in words that have allowed her to breathe and smile again.
“Now that the book is written I feel so much better and I feel so healed. I kind of have this sense that all the pieces of me that were scattered after he died, it’s like the book brought them all back together,” said Henderson. “ And I feel whole again.”