From a young age, Keith Henry learned the value of being part of a team. The Cheshire native enjoyed competing and forming tight bonds in soccer and swimming.
“That was an important part of my overall development,” reflected Henry, who was raised as the youngest of nine brothers. “In hindsight, Cheshire was a great community to grow up in.”
After graduating from Cheshire High School in 1987, he decided to join another team on a bigger scale. Henry attended the U.S. Naval Academy and went on to serve his country for 30 years in roles such as a lieutenant, commander, lieutenant commander, captain, and chief of staff.
“The Navy believes in honor, courage, and commitment,” stated Henry. “Those are the values that have shaped me into the person I am today.”
While having chosen to retire from active duty last year, he was recently presented with a special honor for his service. On April 29, Henry was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government at the Consulate-General of Miami in Florida.
Established in 1875 by Emperor Meiji, the Order of the Rising Sun was Japan’s first award. The distinction is presented to people who have made distinguished achievements through international relations, promotion of Japanese culture, and advancements in their field.
Japan honored Henry after he served as Commander of the Naval Forces (Misawa) and Chief of Staff for U.S. Naval Forces in the nation.
“They recognize people every year,” said Henry. “It is a prestigious award. It is recognition of the work I did in my last couple of tours in the Navy.”
CHS swimming founder and retired head coach Ed Aston felt that attending the award ceremony was one of the highlights of his coaching career.
“I’m very proud of him,” said Aston, of seeing Henry honored for his service. “It is great to see what a great man he has grown into.”
Henry credits Aston for directing him toward the U.S. Naval Academy. While he was swimming at CHS, Aston arranged for him to sit down and talk to Bryan McLaughlin, who had been hired as the assistant coach for the Midshipman women’s swim program.
“Ed took a lot of pride in his swimmers,” reflected Henry. “At that time, he knew that I was struggling with what college I wanted to go to.”
In reflection, Aston enjoyed helping athletes learn life lessons and find a path.
“That is part of your role as a coach and a teacher,” stated Aston. “You work on those skills and hope that they take those things with them.”
Henry decided to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy and was accepted as a student and swimmer.
“At the time, I knew it was very selective,” said Henry, of getting into the academy. “I don’t think that I appreciated it until much later.”
He swam for two seasons before deciding to end his competitive career.
“The Naval Academy is very rigorous,” said Henry. “In my sophomore year, I had to decide between being a swimmer or an electrical engineer. After that, my focus shifted to academics and naval duties.”
To this day, he feels that his favorite sport still taught him invaluable lessons.
“You need to have a lot of dedication and discipline to be a swimmer,” stated Henry, who now swims recreationally. “I couldn’t focus on that as much as I wanted to (at Navy).”
His passion for math and science led him to choosing his major in college.
“Electrical engineering has a lot of applied physics,” added Henry.
Following graduation, Henry moved south for flight training in Pensacola, Florida and Meridian, Mississippi. In 1994, he became a Naval Aviator and did FA-18 training at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida.
“I chose aviation because it seemed like the most fun and rewarding,” recalled Henry. “Flight school wasn’t as rigorous after (attending) the Naval Academy. It is well constructed to walk you from a non-flyer to a qualified aviator.”
He was selected to fly with the VFA-83 Rampagers and supported missions abroad.
“At the time, it (the Hornet) was the most effective jet that the Navy had,” stated Henry.
In 1998, Henry was chosen to attend the Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland.
“They (instructors) do a good job of preparing the pilot for when the pilot comes to fly,” said Henry. “There are nerves, but when your time comes, it becomes automatic at some point.”
A year later, he joined Naval Weapons Squadron in Point Mugu, California. He enjoyed developing relationships with other officers in the ready room, a compartment for aircraft briefings.
“For missions, you can’t do it alone,” said Henry. “You rely on those people with your life. Those are the long life connections that you make.”
In 2001, he moved to Atsugi, Japan, to team up with the VFA-195 Dambusters.
“It took a while to get used to being outside the gate, but the Japanese (people) are very courteous and kind,” stated Henry. “It is a safe place to live.”
Three years later, he was named as an instructor at the Naval Strike Air Warfare Center in Fallon, Nevada. In his new role, Henry trained carrier air wing pilots.
He felt that becoming a leader was an experience 12 years in the making.
“I was continuing the Naval legacy,” recalled Henry. “It was certainly rewarding. It is hard stuff, to coordinate a lot of carriers. I’m glad that I could help people develop.”
In a change of pace in 2006, Henry moved to Camp Smith, Hawaii, to work with the U.S. Marine Corps. He enjoyed being the Joint Interface Control Officer in the J3 Operations Directorate of U.S. Pacific Command.
“It can be easy to focus on your own service,” said Henry. “It is important to step out of that and see other services.”
Two years later, he transitioned into a squadron commanding officer for the VFA-192 Golden Dragons. Henry oversaw pilots and sailors in operations and maintenance of F/A-18C Hornet aircraft.
“We made a lot of deployments in the South Pacific China seas,” stated Henry.
In 2009, his squadron received the Battle E distinction as the top squad in the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Henry also led the move of aircraft, along with sailors and families, from Japan to Naval Air Station Lemoore in California.
“It was pretty challenging, but at the end of all of that, it felt good to be in that squadron,” Henry recalled.
For a non-flying tour, Henry took the role of an air boss aboard the USS George Washington in 2011.
“I was in charge of flight operations. It was an extremely tiring and busy job,” Henry said.
In 2013, Henry went to the Seventh Fleet to head the Integrated Air and Missile Defense system.
A year later, he took over Command of the Naval Air Facility in Misawa, Japan. In a new task, he supported the installation of Seventh Fleet aviation units deploying to Northern Japan.
Henry recalls the experience being initially daunting.
“I stepped outside my comfort zone to be responsible for facilities and supporting squadrons,” explained Henry.
In 2017, he adjusted to his last role as Chief of Staff for the Navy. Henry worked on the Navy’s interests with the Japanese government and the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force.
He also organized base operations, physical security, and facility maintenance at Navy bases overseas.
“I needed to start thinking about diplomacy and working with the government of Japan,” recalled Henry. “I had more collaboration with the state department to understand what the Navy and the alliance needed.”
When COVID-19 broke out worldwide two years ago, Henry faced a new challenge while navigating in a foreign country.
“Being overseas with families, it was important to keep a line of communication, so they understood what was going on,” explained Henry.
As a leader, he found the pandemic to be an educational experience.
“I was fortunate that I had a lot of good advice from the medical community to make decisions,” recalled Henry.
After 30 years, Henry announced last summer that he was retiring from the Navy.
“It was the right time to step down and move on to the next chapter,” stated Henry. “Being in the Navy allowed me to see the world.”
With the pandemic still having an impact, he felt it was particularly challenging starting retirement.
“After I had worked in Japan for 10 years, it was a transition to come back to the U.S.,” reflected Henry.
While he is unsure when he will visit his hometown again, Henry liked hearing that the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall will be coming to Cheshire on June 1. The Wall is a replica of the memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I’m glad that we are supportive of veterans,” said Henry. “There was a different view of the military when I joined the Navy. There is a lot of stress that goes into combat and preparing to serve the nation.”