When I came home from Iraq in 2007, I was one of the lucky ones. I had a civilian job waiting. I had a wife and kids. I had a nice house in a good neighborhood. I also had a depression that I couldn’t seem to shake. It didn’t take long for things to unravel.
After I had been home for a few months my wife split, leaving me as the full-time caregiver for my three young children. I was furloughed from my job a year later. Coping with day-to-day life became increasingly difficult. All the while, my depression worsened. In many ways, the pain my kids felt was deeper than my own. Their world had been completely upended by war, divorce, and financial uncertainty. They didn’t understand what was happening to them and had no idea how to cope. More than anything else, they needed a strong, stable presence in their lives to guide them through the chaos. But that wasn’t me. I was barely holding on myself.
When I felt as if I had reached my breaking point, I turned to the VA for help. They referred me to a program called Operation Healthy Reunions that matches OIF/OEF vets and their families with free counseling services in the Dallas area. It’s cliché to say that this referral changed my life — but it did.
For six months I worked with a cognitive-behavioral counselor trying to beat the depression and make sense of my wartime experiences. At the same time, my children worked with an equine-assisted therapist who gave them the chance to process their feelings in an environment where they felt connected and safe — a horse ranch. By the time six months had passed, I knew what my next career would be. Counseling helped me and my kids find the joy in our lives again — and showed us how to move confidently forward on a new path. I felt a calling to enter this profession. But first I needed a degree in the field.
While I was trying to figure out how to go back to school and still make ends meet, the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill began to get some traction in Washington. Thanks largely to the efforts of IAVA, this investment in the New Greatest Generation became the critical piece in realizing my dream. Three months after the legislation was signed by the president, I was sitting in a classroom at the University of North Texas.
I’ve been going to school full-time for almost two years now and my graduation is in sight. The experience of being on campus has been one of the most rewarding of my life. I’ve watched the University embrace veterans at all levels — from the staff of the Veterans’ Assistance Office working to ease the transition to academic life, right down to my professors and fellow students who value the unique perspective I bring to the classroom. Everywhere I go on campus, the message is the same: “we want you here with us.”
I’ve also felt a growing sense of pride as I’ve watched the ranks of student-veterans swell. With each new semester, there are more and more of us on campus. Between each of my classes these days, I see students passing through the university concourse, carrying that trademark ACU backpack. But I’d know them even without the gear. They are the ones projecting that unique brand of self-assuredness that comes from military service. It’s not arrogance. It’s the quiet confidence of someone who’s been there.
I hope as the war winds down in the next few years that more vets will take advantage of the New G.I. Bill. It can open up endless possibilities for all of us, as we take that next step in life. In the end, our country will be stronger for this influx of dynamic new leadership that is war-tested and ready for anything.
Jeff Hensley is a 1986 University of Texas graduate who joined the U.S. Navy in 1987 and spent 20 years flying F-14s and T-45s on active duty and as a selected reservist. He will graduate with an MS in counseling next year and plans to work as a mental health specialist counseling veterans. Jeff lives in Frisco, Texas with his three kids, two dogs, a cat, and two rats, and is a spokesperson for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.