Through his eyes: Veteran student reflects on life as U.S. Air Force member


Courtesy of Shawn Ennis

Shawn Ennis after graduating from D.A.R.E. school. The D.A.R.E program teaches members to speak to kids about the drug abuse resistance education. Ennis taught in Germany about how to keep kids away from drugs.  

Stephen Koenigsfeld

Shawn Ennis is sitting at his computer with a Photoshop file open, doing his best to master the pen tool. His professor walks by him, and she gives him a glance, asking, “Did you get everything figured out alright?”

Without hesitation, he says, “Yes, ma’am.” 

The response, however, isn’t in a typical cadence. It’s softer than a normal yell found in the military. But it’s not a nonchalant reply either. It’s midway between the two — a rehabilitated but courteous response.

Ennis, 30, is a non-traditional, veteran student at Iowa State. After serving seven years in the U.S. Air Force, Shawn is back in Iowa pursuing a journalism and mass communication degree and serving full-time as a husband and a father.

Coming back to Iowa after his near-decade long tour around the world with the military never crossed his mind when he was a younger man. He bounced around the country quite a bit as a kid.

Ennis took a couple breaks from his work to talk with me about his military experience. After hearing about all of the work he had to do overseas, I’ll admit I had a double take when I heard a “Yes, ma’am” come from him. Did the fact that I knew he was in the military change how I viewed his formal response? The whole two-second interaction caused me to question how I looked at non-traditional students in all my classes.

Originally born in Oregon, Ennis moved to Texas when he was 5. The move was foreign but didn’t affect him too much because he was so young, he said. It was the move back to Oregon with his dad when he was 18 that was the harder transition.

“I went back there because, well, who really claims they’re from Oregon?” Ennis said with a shrug.

Not giving it a second thought, Ennis earned his high school diploma and immediately enlisted in the Air Force. For the next seven years, his military experience shaped and molded his life in unimaginable ways.

For the first three-and-a-half years, Ennis guarded nuclear missiles in Utah. 

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Nothing ever happened,” Ennis said.  

When I heard his response, I was immediately intrigued. But he laughed when I let out a small gasp and said, “Whoa, that had to have been interesting.” 

Ennis’ military past helps him excel in the college environment by giving him guidance on what he wants to do with his life.

Ennis is just a semester away from completing his goal of being a radio personality. As a member of the Air Force, Ennis spent the last seven months of his deployment in Portugal working for the Armed Forces Network as a disk jokey, playing songs and giving input to the genre of music he was playing. He’d play just about anything to keep troops interested.

“My brother and dad both did radio, and I became really close with some of my dad’s friends when I was a kid,” Ennis said.

Ennis bounced back and forth in our conversation between his military years and how he took his experience as a military DJ and applies it to KURE, the on-campus radio station. 

Ennis turns his attention back to Photoshop and looks over the work he’s done. He glances back at me and reminisces about a time when he thought, “How cool it was to see what they were doing on the radio.”

Being at Iowa State has let Ennis come full circle. From the earliest memories of being on the radio, to actually DJing in the Air Force, to taking classes that will help him achieve his dream, the path hasn’t gone unhindered. 

“For me, the transition back into civilian life was the hardest; it was the readjusting,” Ennis said.