Sean Henninger is a typical ACU freshman. He hangs out with friends, goes to class, puts off his homework and answers calls on a brand new iPhone. But unlike the typical college freshman, Henninger didn’t come to college straight out of high school – he came from the U.S. Army.
Henninger, freshman youth and family ministry major from Jenks, Okla., spent 15 months as a sniper in Iraq before enrolling at ACU. It was an experience he said resulted in a new-found maturity, a stronger faith and his decision to enroll at ACU.
Spending his childhood watching war movies and playing with GI Joes, Henninger said he always knew he wanted to go to the army right out of high school. In fact, when the U.S. entered Iraq in the early 2000s, he said jokingly he remembers thinking, “Don’t leave without me.”
After graduating from high school in 2005, Henninger went straight to basic training.
“I didn’t plan on going to college,” Henninger said. “I hated school and didn’t want to go, so the military was the perfect opportunity to get a jump start on life.”
But during his five years of army life stationed in Washington, Germany, Iraq and Louisiana, Henninger said he changed his mind.
He said the army – and growing up in general – helped him realize the importance of a college degree for his future.
“In the military you’re pretty much forced to grow up,” Henninger said. “The structure and everyday life really enhances that.”
On a typical day sniper mission, Henninger said he and five other men would spend 24-48 hours at a time waiting and watching – not quite as glorious as it looks in the movies, he said.
For security reasons, they didn’t go out with fewer than six people at a time. Each man had a position as a shooter, spotter or security or radio operator. Henninger was a spotter, the job with the most responsibility and the one that requires the most experience. He said he basically picked out targets, told the shooter what to dial in on the scope and called when to shoot.
His position as spotter came with a lot of responsibility. For the last two years, Henninger was in charge of up to eight men.
When they weren’t on sniper missions, he said he was kicking in doors and pulling people out of houses as part of a recon platoon.
Henninger said faith played a huge role in all the missions. While they were rolling out, he said he frequently lifted up prayers for his platoon – a strategy he thinks helped, seeing as there were no casualties in his platoon.
“My faith definitely got stronger as I went on, especially in the last year,” Henninger said. “I was realizing that you can’t live this life without God, and putting him first is the most important.”
His faith is also part of the reason he chose to attend ACU.
“A year before I got out of the army, I was really looking at different schools and praying, and God really led me here,” Henninger said. “This was the only place I applied, and I got in.”
While his faith remains firm, other things about college life take some getting used to, Henninger said. ACU is much less structured than the army, and he is still learning how to prioritize without someone telling him exactly what to do.
When it comes to the question of whether ACU students treat him differently, Henninger said they don’t. In fact, he said the biggest difference is simply the fact that he’s so much older.
Elizabeth Coffee, senior Ad/PR major from San Antonio, is the group leader for Henninger’s Cornerstone class. She said his experiences in the army and his intuitive comments have benefited the entire group, and even she has learned lessons from him.
“He is a critical asset to our group in that he served as a leader right off the bat,” Coffee said. “The themes of Cornerstone are all things he has lived through.”
Talking with other students in the class, Coffee said it is obvious they listen to him and have a lot of respect for the decisions he made before coming to ACU – and for coming to college in the first place.
Other students in the class agree. Jordan Derrick, freshman undeclared major from Denton, said Henninger’s experiences have helped provide a different perspective for the students.
“He’s added a different view coming from the military because we haven’t been through the things he’s had to go through,” Derrick said. “He has a whole different perspective than most of us have.”
While the typical freshman isn’t a veteran, the typical freshman does honor those who have served the country on Veterans Day. But this young veteran says he’s not the one who should be honored.
“I would say it’s good to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice,” Henninger said. “The ones who have died for our freedoms are the ones we really should honor.”