Carolina salutes its 342 employees who are U.S. military veterans with stories of a grandfather’s influence starting a soldier’s path to leadership, an unlikely sailor from the NC mountains, and an Air Force veteran who directs Carolina’s Veterans Resource Center.
From the sea to OASIS
Timothy Hensley ’04, associate director of systems, instructional technology and web services for the Office of Arts and Sciences Information Services at Carolina, is a U.S. Navy veteran who doesn’t always think of himself as a veteran.
An unlikely sailor when he enlisted in 1995, the 18-year-old native of Sylva, a small town in the North Carolina mountains, had never seen the ocean and didn’t know how to swim.
But Hensley was determined to get an education, and the Navy offered him the surest route. “I was from a very low-income family, and I needed the money to go to college,” Hensley said. “I had intended to go to the Army, but the Navy offered me more money for college.”
Hensley spent much of the next four years aboard the USS Leyte Gulf, a guided missile cruiser then part of the USS Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group. In March 1999, he was the battle group’s tactical information coordinator for Operation Allied Force, a NATO operation to free Kosovo from Serbian control and allow Albanian refugees to return home.
Hensley supervised a watch team that identified and tracked over 1,000 allied air combat missions. The Navy commended him for his service, calling his skills “vital to the success of Operation Allied Force in the Adriatic Sea.”
Hensley watched from the flight deck as Tomahawk missiles lit up the midnight sky over the Adriatic Sea. “That was scary. It was like the ship exploded,” he recalled. Even more frightening was a training exercise about 100 miles off the North Carolina coast in October 1996 when an aircraft carrier unexpectedly reversed course and slammed into the bow of his smaller ship and ripped it open.
Despite these experiences, Hensley said he doesn’t always think of himself as a veteran. “I’m a really big fan of that HBO miniseries ‘Band of Brothers’ and what those folks went through compared to what I went through — there’s no comparison, really.”
Back home in Sylva, Hensley enrolled in Southwestern Community College, where he maintained a 4.0 GPA for two years before transferring to Carolina. He majored in religious studies because he was interested in the topic but didn’t think of it as a career.
“My main goal in life up until that point was to get admitted to UNC and graduate from UNC. I really hadn’t planned my life after that,” he said. “During my time as a student at UNC, I learned that I loved technology and helping others. It didn’t occur to me that I might one day do both of those things while an employee at the University.”
Two jobs he had as a student — at the RAM Shop of Student Stores and as one of the first Mac Geniuses at the Apple Store in Southpoint Mall in Durham — steered him to a career in tech. A few years later, what started as a temporary position at OASIS became permanent. In 2012, he completed the University Leadership and Development Program and took on his current role.
The University’s pivot to remote-only instruction in the spring because of the pandemic was particularly tough on instructional technology specialists like Hensley. But while the pandemic has been stressful, Hensley has his military past to keep things in perspective.
“It’s not as stressful as the collision at sea with an aircraft carrier that I lived through, because that really happened,” he said. “We’re all in this together, and we’ll get through this together.”
By Susan Hudson
‘Do the right thing when nobody’s looking’
The grandfather’s balding, bespectacled appearance belies an intensity as he explains to his teenage grandson the transformation happening before them while July heat descends from a clear blue sky over the Hudson River.
It’s Reception Day 1996, and new cadets have arrived at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The grandfather, a former 1st Lt. named Ernest Zseleczky who worked at West Point before serving in the Korean War, narrates the cadets’ transformation from civilian to soldier: goodbyes to family, hustling to orders, buzzcuts for the men, donning uniforms. That afternoon, the cadets emerge to march in formation past a grandstand full of families.
It was also transformative for the 15-year-old grandson, now Lt. Col. Dan Hurd, professor of military science and department chair of Carolina’s Military Science department. Hurd also leads the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps.
“That’s the day I decided that I wanted to join the Army, specifically to attend West Point and be a part of that tradition,” Hurd said.
“I got to see a little behind the scenes and see the cadets actually in-process. We watched them come out of the barracks for the first time in uniform and gather equipment at different stations. It was their first day in the military, and I kind of experienced that with them.”
Hurd went on to a career that includes tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University, leading soldiers and teaching at West Point. His awards and decorations include the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Combat and Expert Infantryman’s Badges, Senior Parachutist Badge, Air Assault Badge and the Ranger Tab.
During childhood in Chapel Hill, Hurd had an idea of what Army life would be like, but he had no intention of enrolling at a service academy. But, through his grandfather’s influence, Hurd attended West Point and found other people to emulate. Hurd points to two seniors at West Point — Andrew Gallo and Trent Moore — whose examples during his first year inspire him to this day.
“I looked up to them. They always gave 100%, were disciplined and helped people. They seemed to always do the right thing, and I said, ‘This is what I want to be like.’ From then on, at least at West Point, it clicked. I understood what right looked like and what it meant to be part of something bigger in which you represent a larger community.
“We talk about service a lot in UNC’s program. We say, ‘When people look at you, they think of this larger community of soldiers, officers and people who serve their country. You can’t be the one that’s letting all those people down.’”
Hurd sees that discipline and commitment every day when 75 cadets gather for physical training. Everyone adheres to COVID-19 precautions by wearing face masks and maintaining appropriate distance. Afterwards, they attend class and take on other responsibilities.
“If there’s any group that can figure out how to do this the right way, it’s us, because these young men and women are disciplined, and they know how to do the right thing when nobody’s looking.”
By Scott Jared
Service before self
MaDana Bivens has been serving fellow veterans since the start of her career in the Air Force in 2010. As a first-generation college student, she joined Air Force ROTC at Howard University to fund her education and became interested in helping veterans returning from war.
“I was a psychology major in college, so when I learned how veterans weren’t receiving the care and attention that they needed to deal with PTSD, I wanted to help,” says Bivens. “I had personally witnessed my uncle, who was an Army veteran, struggle after coming home from Iraq so that prompted me to want to serve those individuals.”
Upon graduation, Bivens joined the Air Force as a personnel officer. She led a team that worked directly with airmen on everything from their base assignments to promotions and retirements. Bivens also directed a fitness center, dining facility and childcare center. After four years, she pivoted to working with students as an Air Force ROTC instructor. In 2020, she became program director for the Carolina Veterans Resource Center, where she uses her experiences from her previous roles to advocate for student veterans.
The Carolina Veterans Resource Center is a point of engagement for student veterans and other military–affiliated students. The CVRC serves not only veterans but also their dependents, spouses or anyone with a military affiliation. The CVRC identifies any internal and community resources student veterans may need, increases campus awareness of veterans’ unique needs and works to improve retention and graduation rates through support services.
As program director, Bivens serves as a liaison between veterans and the campus community.
“I’ve been honing my leadership skills since my time as an ROTC cadet, and I led a large group of people as an officer, and through those experiences I developed a servant leadership style,” says Bivens. “My primary job is to serve the military and military–affiliated students here at Carolina. I took this position to ensure veterans feel connected to the Carolina community and have the resources they need to become successful.”
Bivens said her Air Force experience drove her to serve others.
“We have core values in the Air Force, which are “Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence In All We Do.” Service before self is something I value, because those of us that serve our country essentially also agree to put our professional duties before our own personal desires,” says Bivens. “I had a sense of satisfaction then and now that I’m serving a cause bigger than myself.”
Her career of helping Airmen and veterans certainly puts others before herself, and Bivens encourages others to reflect on how they can serve and celebrate this Veterans Day.
“I think it’s easy for veterans on campus to be a forgotten group, so recognition through Veterans Day celebrations this week is a great start towards acknowledging their important place in the campus community,” says Bivens.
By Madeline Pace
All stories courtesy of The Well