By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Phil Heun spent 24 years in the U.S. Navy.
It was an exciting career for the Kearney High School graduate, who sailed around the world as an electrician, aircraft launch and recovery technician and elevator technician working on massive aircraft carriers.
Heun met his wife Ericka, an Army nurse, while he was stationed in San Diego, and he served under retired Vice Admiral Ted Carter, the priority candidate to become the next University of Nebraska president, aboard the USS Harry S. Truman and USS Enterprise.
The Navy took him to Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Japan, South Korea and other exotic locations, and he was part of numerous military deployments in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea.
After he was promoted to chief petty officer – reaching his ultimate goal – Heun extended his Navy career by returning to the Naval Station Great Lakes, where he completed boot camp in February 1993. As a master training specialist, he taught basic engineering to new sailors for three years at the installation near Chicago.
“I started to realize I kind of liked this teaching thing,” the Lexington native said, recalling his love of shop class as a youth. “That’s what I really wanted to do, but I didn’t see a way to it.”
When he retired from the Navy on Dec. 31, 2016, Heun arrived at the same crossroad many veterans face.
“I found myself in a new, strange world that I’d never been in before,” he said of civilian life. “I didn’t know which direction to go. I didn’t know what to do. All I knew is I wanted to teach.”
Heun, who earned an associate degree in mechatronics while serving in the Navy, applied for a few teaching positions back in Nebraska, but nothing panned out. Now living in Minden, he took a job at a Kearney manufacturing plant until a back injury in October 2018 temporarily landed him in a wheelchair.
“I realized I couldn’t do that maintenance-type job I got from having an associate degree,” Heun said. “My body’s not able to do that anymore, so I had to figure out something else.”
Heun had no intention of returning to college when he stopped by the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus the following month, but that’s exactly where he ended up.
“I planned to stay in the vehicle,” he said with a laugh.
It was Ericka who insisted her husband join her inside the Memorial Student Affairs Building, where they needed to turn in a transcript for their son Joe, who was transferring to UNK from Central Community College.
Before they left, Heun asked a quick question. What would it take to become an industrial technology teacher?
“Five hours later, after rolling through several offices in that building, I had bucket loads of information,” he said.
One of the most beneficial stops was the Military and Veterans Services Office led by Lori Skarka, who worked with Heun to ensure he took advantage of all the educational benefits he earned through his military service.
“She was instrumental in that whole process,” Heun said.
UNK’s Military and Veterans Services Office supports veterans, current service members and their dependents as they pursue their educational goals by providing resources and services that help them succeed. Located in the Memorial Student Affairs Building, the office assists students when they’re applying for military education benefits and acts as a liaison between students and the Department of Veterans Affairs, military branches and other UNK offices.
As a disabled veteran, Heun learned his military benefits through the GI Bill and vocational rehabilitation and employment services would cover his costs to attend UNK, as well as Joe’s.
“I wouldn’t have known all that information had I not talked to her,” Heun said of Skarka. “There are so many benefits available to veterans, and many people don’t even know about them.”
Now Heun and his 21-year-old son are both enrolled at UNK as first-generation college students. Joe is studying psychology on a pre-occupational therapy path and Heun is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology with a minor in construction management. He plans to complete UNK’s Transitional Certification Program to become a certified teacher.
“It’s just amazing how all that came together,” the 45-year-old father of six said.
STUDENT VETERANS ORGANIZATION
In addition to his academic pursuits, Heun is part of the Student Veterans Organization on campus.
The group, started by U.S. Army veteran and fellow UNK student Jason Baker, allows veterans, those currently serving in the military and other military-connected students to bond and support each other during their time at UNK. They also plan to organize volunteer activities in the community, including events at the Central Nebraska Veterans Home.
“It’s a good thing for us as veterans to have that camaraderie and those interactions with other people we can relate to,” Heun said.
The organization, which has about 10 members, meets at 3 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month in the Sisler Room inside the Memorial Student Affairs Building.
BY THE NUMBERS
9 – UNK students who are currently deployed or on active duty
32 – UNK students who receive educational benefits through a family member’s military service
66 – Military veterans attending UNK
69 – Reserve or National Guard members attending UNK