This post is written by Jeff Hensley, former Fellow with The Mission Continues and national spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, recounting the day he met the love of his life.
After 21 years of service as an officer and fighter pilot, I left the Navy with a strong sense of duty and purpose, but thick armor around my heart. What protected me through war and divorce kept me emotionally disconnected from others, even those closest to me—my three children. I conducted my life as if I was executing a mission—rational, precise, and solutions-focused. With loved ones, I was protective, but not nurturing; gentle, but not tender. I had learned to ignore my emotions, but instead of trying to figure out why, I poured all of my energy into finding a new professional identity in civilian life.
Loving someone new, much less getting married again, was almost impossible to imagine.
I found my new identity in veteran advocacy. The passion I withheld from loved ones I channeled instead entirely into this new mission. I became very involved with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) serving as a member representative and national spokesman. Inspired by the positive impact IAVA was having on the lives of my fellow veterans, I started looking for additional ways to serve.
When I learned about The Mission Continues, I was intrigued. The Mission Continues challenges Post 9-11 veterans to serve Fellowships in local non-profits by volunteering 20 hours a week for 6 months. It seemed the perfect complement to my work at IAVA. I was awarded a Fellowship to serve with Equest, a local non-profit ranch helping veterans transition through its “Hooves for Heroes” program. My Fellowship would begin on October 19, 2012 at an orientation in my hometown of Dallas.
I had no idea that another new Fellow and Navy veteran, inbound on a Southwest Airlines 737, would be the one to change my life forever and teach me how to love again. But after meeting Colleen on that very first day of The Mission Continues orientation, I knew she would.
It defies all logic, but it took falling in love with another warrior for me to find my gentle side—the most vulnerable part of me, but the part I love most. Perhaps because we both understand the warrior ethos, we trust each other enough to explore our softer sides. Professionally, we’ve worked together to advocate for our brothers and sisters-in-arms and find new purpose in continued service. Personally, we’ve learned to love more fully and more deeply together.
Every day I’m with her, I feel the armor around my heart being slowly stripped away. Ironically, this makes me stronger and a more effective advocate. It also makes me a better man and a better father.
A few months ago, I asked Colleen to marry me and she said “yes.” Now, we are planning our wedding for October with Southwest and The Mission Continues, the two organizations that brought us together.
Southwest Airlines is a proud national sponsor of The Mission Continues and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, organizations dedicated to supporting our service men and women. Jeff and Colleen plan to wed at Southwest Airlines Headquarters in Dallas in October.