SHERIDAN — Air Force veteran Eric Vielhauer made a lot of life-changing choices during his 21 years in the military. Perhaps no decision, however, has made more of a difference to his post-service life than quickly signing his name on GI Bill paperwork right after joining up.

This fall, the 44-year-old enters his fifth and final year at Sheridan College ready to leave with degrees in culinary arts, hospitality management and victim advocacy.

“Probably the best little decision I ever made in the military was doing that,” he said. “I’ve now got two degrees and I’m working on a third, and the GI Bill has paid for almost all of it.”

Vielhauer didn’t always take education seriously. After growing up in Sheridan, he graduated high school in Gillette with a self-described terrible grade-point average, very few extracurricular activities and little direction.

“Back when I was in high school, it was about Monday go to school to look for the party Friday,” he laughed. “My work ethic and my thoughts on education have completely changed since then.”

Vielhauer looked to family tradition when deciding what to do with his life. His maternal grandfather served in the Royal Navy during World War II, and an uncle was in the U.S. Navy.

He listened to pitches from military recruiters in high school before settling on the Air Force. Three weeks after graduating, Vielhauer started basic training in San Antonio, Texas. He began in military intelligence — a job he did not like — before transferring to aircraft welding machinist. After four months of training between Illinois and Maryland, Vielhauer started a career that would take him around the United States and world.

He made stops in Florida, Korea and California, among others. He started off working on aircraft. Later, he excelled at his work and earned promotions. During a stint at an Air Force base in Alaska, he spent three years as a quality assurance inspector, tasked with ensuring planes were ready to fly missions. In Idaho, he supervised 300 people and prepared airmen to head overseas.

Vielhauer could have opted to leave the military many times, but instead stayed for 21 years. He enjoyed the structure and the respect of the military. But even more so, he liked the bond that all soldiers share.

“You can just talk to someone who’s been a veteran,” he explained. “Like, I never was in a combat campaign. The closest I ever was I served a year in Korea — technically it still is a conflict. But I can still sit and talk to veterans who were in conflict and feel what they felt because I had friends who went over and I lost friends who went over. That whole camaraderie in the military is very hard to describe to anyone who was not in the military.”

Vielhauer retired in August 2011 and returned to his home state. With him, he brought a discipline and work ethic ingrained by his years in the military. Over his four years at Sheridan College, he’s earned a GPA in the 3.4 to 3.6 range, he estimated.

And school isn’t Vielhauer’s only priority. He’s a single father with three daughters at home. He also works part time; he recently began at the Wyoming Culinary Institute as the student restaurant manager and previously worked at the Firewater Grill & Bar.

His dream job is restaurant manager, running the front of the business while also having a hand in the kitchen. He doesn’t know if he’ll find that sort of work in Sheridan, but he knows one thing for sure: he will not be leaving Wyoming again, at least not anytime soon.

“I really love my hometown,” he said. “My mother’s here, my brother’s here, I have aunts and uncles here. Parts of my family have been in Sheridan, from what I understand, since the ‘40s.

“I’m hoping that I can find something here after school,” he added. “If not, I could move to somewhere like Casper or somewhere a little bigger. But I want to stay in Wyoming because I love my state.”