North Texas Daily

Graduate goes from pilot to writer

Graduate goes from pilot to writer

March 26
22:47 2013

Taylon Chandler / Contributing Writer

Tom Cruise may not be the most popular man in the world, but he has one lifelong fan in UNT graduate Jeff Hensley.

“I saw ‘Top Gun’ and I really didn’t have any desire to go into my degree field,” said Hensley, a marketing senior at the University of Texas at Austin at the time. “I went down to the recruiter’s office the next day and told them that’s what I wanted to do.”

Hensley, a native of Richardson, earned his private pilot license while waiting to be accepted into the U.S. Navy. After training to be a fighter pilot, he alternated between active duty and reserve duty for the next 21 years.

“It was really a dream come true for me,” Hensley said. “If it hadn’t been for that movie, I don’t know what I would be doing.”

Hensley earned his master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from UNT in 2012 – something he said he would not have been able to do if it were not for the post-9/11 GI Bill.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Hensley was in the air as a civilian pilot for United Airlines.

Laid over in Hartford, Conn. the night before, his plane flew out of the same departure corridor as United 175, the plane that crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

“We actually heard their last transmission but we didn’t know what was going on,” Hensley said. “I didn’t know this until later, but that was United 175 reporting that they had heard hijackers on  American 11. Right after they made that report to the departure controllers was when they [the hijackers] busted through the cockpit doors and sliced their throats.”

Hensley and his co-pilot knew something was wrong when the center controller stopped responding to pilots’ routine check-ins.

When the controller did come back on the air, all pilots were told to find the closest airport and land immediately.

“The very first thing that I thought when I realized what had happened was, ‘Oh my God, we’re at war,’” Hensley said.

Hensley was recalled from the reserves twice to be a flight instructor before he was deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006.

In Iraq, he worked with a civil affairs group and was responsible for increasing employment and working with neighborhood city councils.

Mike Sanchez was in Iraq with Hensley and was inspired by his friend’s actions.

“He’s the kind of person that, when you see him doing his job, he’s the ultimate professional,” Sanchez said. “You want to be a better person because you want to measure up to the standards he conveys.”

Although Hensley was excited to return home in 2007, he was not prepared for civilian life.

“I was literally in the streets of Baghdad carrying an M-16 and 48 hours later I was home,” Hensley said. “I had no time to process it, no way to process it.”

Like many of his friends, Hensley came home to marital problems, which soon led to divorce.

“We had really drifted apart over that year and a half I was gone,” Hensley said. “You lead two different lives during that time and people become different people in a lot of ways.”

Hensley, who had custody of his three children, didn’t know how to cope with all the changes.

“The VA [Veteran’s Administration] was overwhelmed, so they were referring people to Operation Healthy Reunions, a group that provides mental health counseling,” Hensley said.

Hensley said these therapy sessions made him realize he wanted to help veterans.

“I was still pretty close with all my battle buddies and I knew a lot of them were struggling with some of the same issues,” Hensley said.

After graduating from UNT in 2012, he was rewarded with a fellowship by a group called The Mission Continues. Hensley chose to work with  Equest, a therapeutic riding center that has a program called Hooves for Heroes.

Susannah Denney, Equest’s veterans’ coordinator, said Hensley has had a positive effect on the program.

“He’s very approachable, very amiable and has a nice, steady energy for the veterans who might feel a little unstable,” Denney said. “The day he chose to come to Equest to do his fellowship was a very lucky day for the Hooves for Heroes program.”

Hensley also writes articles for IAVA and The Mission Continues and has been published in The Huffington Post, The Dallas Morning News, and Colliers magazine. He said this is one of his favorite ways to center himself.

“Coming back from an experience like Iraq, I don’t think it ever really leaves you,” Hensley said. “Writing the pieces gives me the opportunity to put things back into a comprehensible fashion. When I came home I felt like I was broken. Writing is a protective factor for me to remind myself that those 18 months don’t define who I am.”

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