Robert Henson knows all about guilt, anger, intense feelings of loss and a lack of purpose. He struggled with these feelings for years after he lost his younger brother to a house fire 12 years ago.
Now Henson is an outside linebacker with the Washington Redskins.
Many burn survivors struggle with these difficult emotions for a long time after their tragic incidents. These emotions form internal pain that can linger for years after the physical pain of burns goes away. Many burn survivors have trouble getting beyond the tragedy of their circumstance.
But many also find a way to move beyond their injuries and begin to enjoy life and succeed as individuals. The International Burn Camp helps these survivors confront their feelings and work through them with trained counselors and in a setting of shared experience.
Henson is on injured reserve this season due to a torn meniscus so he had time to speak with 40 of these campers during a tour of FedExField on Tuesday, September 28. Robert holds a special place in his heart for burn survivors as he is a survivor of a tragic fire that claimed the life of his 10-year-old brother when Robert was just 12 years old.
Retelling his story, Henson said that he was asleep in his house one evening in 1998 when he awoke at around 5 a.m. to a loud noise. An electrical fire had ignited and flames were shooting through his house. Henson bolted up and began helping his family members to safety. His brother was the last one in the house. But he was consumed by flame before Robert could get to him.
Henson grew up in a small and impoverished town in Texas. His father was never around. He had no role models. If anything he served as a role model to his brother, who idolized him. After the fire Henson entered a prolonged depression where he constantly relived that evening and wondered if there was anything more he could have done to save his brother.
This stage of guilt, anger and depression is all too familiar to many burn victims. At one point during his one-hour question and answer session with the campers Henson asked them “Who among you believes in purpose, as in everything happens for a purpose?”
Most of the campers raised their hands. These campers were selected from about 2,500 members of regional Burn Camps in the United States and Canada. They were selected to attend because they had crossed an important barrier between seeing themselves as victims and survivors whose life has a meaningful purpose.
Henson, who during his teen years was surrounded by negative influences, discovered his talent for football. His high school football coach became his first true mentor and urged him not to miss the opportunities that his athletic talent offered, well beyond the field and lucrative contracts.
Football became his all-consuming purpose, one that helped him avoid a life of crime and idleness experienced by many of the young men he grew up with.
As a competitor, Henson says he has trouble sitting on the sidelines while his teammates take to the field. Though, he suggested to the campers that there was purpose to his injury. These days he spends as much time as he can with his wife and three daughters, and relishes the opportunity to share his inspirational story with others.