Former Skagway student joins U.S. Army, heads overseas

Donovan and his brother Jaxon

For Christmas, before Skagway resident Donovan Henson shipped out, his sisters Karissa Dissinger and Amanda Sangare gave him a small, silver token to keep with him – a guardian angel with a prayer inscribed on the back.

“The very last thing that I said to him was ‘keep your guardian angel token with you at all times,’” Dissinger said.

Just before Donovan’s plane took off, Dissinger reminded her brother to keep his guardian angel with him. Before the plane left, Donovan took a picture of the token and sent it to her.
“Every now and then, it’s so sweet, he’ll just send me a picture of the token on his lap…it is such a good feeling,” Dissinger said.

Donovan is now serving overseas with the U.S. Army as an airborne medic. His current whereabouts, and even the exact date of his departure, are being kept secret for operational security reasons.

What no one is keeping secret are the warm feelings Donovan’s family display when asked about the young soldier.

“It’s such an honorable feeling to know that someone that you love so much is fighting for everybody,” Dissinger said.

Skip Henson of North Carolina, Donovan’s father, said he is first and foremost proud of his son.

Donovan’s mother, Valerie Larsen  of Skagway, said she couldn’t put into words how it feels to see her son make the choice to help others when he did not have to.

“He had the opportunity to go to college on a scholarship, and he chose to serve his country,” Valerie Larsen said. “He chose to go above and beyond.”

Pride, however, doesn’t stop family from worrying.

“Every parent has that apprehension about their children going overseas,” Skip said. “It’s nerve-wracking, it definitely is, but we have our methods and means to keep in touch…looking forward to him coming home, I will admit that.

“I feel you’ve always got to let your kids kind of make their own choices and make their own decisions.”

Seeing Donovan take his chosen path was “challenging,” according to Donovan’s stepfather Mark Larsen.

“Even with the familial history, I don’t think it’s ever easy,” Mark said.

Military tradition is strong in Donovan’s family. Skip said his great-grandfather was in World War I and his grandfather served in World War II. Skip’s father served in Vietnam, and Skip himself was in the Gulf War.

“He’s continuing with the tradition right there,” Skip said.

Before seeing his son off, Skip shared a bit of wisdom with Donovan.

“Keep your head down, come back in one piece with no holes in you,” Skip said. “That’s what my dad told me.”

Donovan isn’t the only one in the family to put on the uniform for America’s most recent overseas engagement. Sangare served as a combat medic as well, and helped discuss the potential careers in the armed forces with her brother.

“Overall, being in the military and being there, I know how exciting it can be,” Sangare said. “I’m excited for him, probably more so than the other people in my family, because I know what it is like to have that deployment patch on.”

The role of combat medic is hands-on, proactive and “you have that sense of duty non-stop,” Sangare said.

“It’s a very rewarding career in the military, I feel,” Sangare said. “I think he really enjoys that. He enjoys being able to help take care of people.”

Valerie described Donovan as strong-willed, a touch stubborn at times and compassionate.

“Although he doesn’t like people to know that, but he is,” Valerie said. “This has made me see that he is determined, and all about helping other people.”

Donovan Henson sent the above photo to his sister, Karissa Dissinger, just before leaving for his deployment. In it, Henson holds the guardian angel token his sisters gave him for Christmas. PHOTO COURTESY OF KARISSA DISSINGER

Donovan and Jaxon, his almost-6-year-old brother, are extremely close as well.

“Jaxon idolizes Donovan, and Donovan is phenomenal with Jaxon,” Valerie said. “They are kind of joined at the hip.”

Dissinger painted Donovan as having an “awesome” sense of humor – a man with a lighthearted personality.

“He’s a little bit quiet until you get to know him, and then he just won’t be quiet,” Dissinger said. “He always has funny jokes. He’s just so goofy, and that is just one thing we all love about him.”

To remind Donovan of the people back home thinking about him, Dissinger said she and her community sent him Valentine’s Day cards. Sangare and her coworkers have sent Donovan correspondence as well.

“I don’t think anybody realizes how much he truly appreciates that, because it makes him feel like he’s getting pieces of home and it is just such a comforting feeling for him,” Dissinger said. “He’s told me ‘stuff like this is what gets you through the long night.’

“The more we can reach out to him, and let him know that we are all thinking about him and his unit really puts his mind at ease, and it makes him feel like he’s not really missing out on a whole lot.”

Wanting to reach out to their former classmate, the students at the Skagway School District also sent Donovan a care package on Feb. 23.

Superintendent Dr. Josh Coughran said once they’d heard about his deployment, Student Council immediately jumped on a project to put something together for Donovan. The students got sweatshirts and t-shirts donated for the care package to send alongside candy and cards.
“I think about a kid that was walking these halls two years ago all the sudden is going to be potentially in a combat situation,” Coughran said. “That’s scary, I want him to know that we’re with him, we support him and that we’re thinking about him as a school and as a district.”