A Mess Hall Thanksgiving: How Growing Up Military Taught Me to Thrive in the Civilian World

How Growing Up Military Taught Me to Thrive in the Civilian World

I was thirteen years old the first time I ate Thanksgiving dinner cafeteria-style. The menu was composed of pre-prepared turkey and instant mashed potatoes, which was anything but desirable for the primadonna teen I was at the time. It wasn’t because my parents had forgotten Thanksgiving that year. Rather, my dad, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, wanted us to see his world through a different lens. I knew better than to propose an alternative to the decision that had likely been solidified months prior. My family would eat Thanksgiving dinner at the Mess Hall on Fort Drum, New York. No questions asked. 


2006 was the year that Thanksgiving took on an entirely new meaning to me. I learned what it meant to genuinely be thankful. That night, my family of four sat amongst hundreds of soldiers, some sitting alone, others with their small families, who were unable to make it home for the holiday. Many were preparing for deployment while others had just returned. My vision of the perfect Thanksgiving- the comfort of my home, football on the television, my mother’s fresh cooking, the presence of family- was all at once shattered and replaced by the company of soldiers I did not know and the peace and solace that consumed the dining hall.  

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Mess Hall Thanksgiving Dinner would become just one page in my book of little lessons I learned growing up as an Army child. This collection of chapters- good and bad, difficult and easy- would eventually help me navigate the waters of an unfamiliar civilian world, and be my rock in every decision, friendship, career path, and experience I encountered. I was part of my dad’s twenty-eight years in the military, which means there were many lessons learned, more than I could possibly write in a single piece. However, I can categorize those lessons into the five most valuable pieces of advice I gathered along the journey the best way I know how: in true military verbiage. 

#1: 15 Minutes Prior to 15 Minutes Prior

As a teacher, it's my tendency to overthink, over-plan, and over-prepare. However, I often succumb to my alarm clock ringing at 5:30 in the morning. Most days, I distinctly hear my father’s voice in my head saying, “If you’re five minutes early, you’re late.” As much as I love the idea of being a morning person, there are very few things I value more than sleep. It wasn’t until college that I realized I have the power to control one of the simplest, yet most powerful parts of my day. Showing up on time is far more rewarding than that extra thirty minutes of sleep. Now, I ensure everything is ready to go the night before- from my meals to the socks I will wear the next day. This allows me to start my day free of worry and chaos and focus on the goals I want to accomplish. Not only am I more confident when I’m prepared, but I know I’m forming a habit for success. 

#2: Be the last in line and let your soldiers eat first.

Of course, I do not literally have “soldiers,” nor do I regularly follow my students through the lunch line. However, to take this phrase figuratively and apply its meaning is rather simple: take care of your people. In all areas of life, your network of people is your anchor. Those under you look up to you and those above you want to see you succeed. When I got my first car, my dad told me, “Take care of your car and it will take care of you.” I believe this to be true of people, too. Your people, your soldiers, are the root of your success and likely the reason behind it. So, get to know the people you serve. Work hard to understand their needs and do what you can to make sure their needs are met. 

#3: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. 

This saying may not have derived from military jargon, however, it was a phrase I heard consistently throughout my childhood as the new kid. My freshman year of high school marked the eighth school I attended in nine years. By this time, I treated every person I met like they would become my best friend. Why? Aside from my older sister, I knew no one at the school of nearly 1, 200. I was intimidated, but yearned for that group of girlfriends to belong to. 

Growing up military taught me something so valuable about forming relationships- you will leave a lasting first impression on everyone you meet. Friends, bosses, coworkers, and even strangers will remember how you interacted with them for the very first time, and you will never get that opportunity back. Now, I make it a point to seek out the “new kid,” the confused co-worker, or the neighbor who just moved in. I know they won't all remember my name, but I hope they remember me as someone who has been in their shoes before. 

#4: Rub some dirt in it

I will never forget my first job rejection. I had just completed graduate school and I was elated to be starting my dream career. My first interview progressed to a second, which contained a teaching component. I spent days and long nights preparing for a thirty-minute lesson. I delivered the lesson to an excited group of 20 eight-year-olds and seven school faculty members. My nerves eventually subsided and I fell into my element. The lesson was a success and the follow-up meeting with the principal was promising. I left feeling confident I had just landed my first job. I waited around in the days that followed for the phone call. A week went by and it never came. Finally, about two and a half weeks after I gave the lesson, I received a letter. I opened the letter only to discover that the principal and her team found another candidate to whom they offered the job. I was disappointed, to say the least.  

I let myself feel down for a day or two, until a series of questions filled my mind:

How many times have I had to pick up and start over? More times than I can count. 

Will it happen again? Almost certainly. 

Can I handle it? Without a doubt.

I told myself something I had heard so many times throughout my journey as an Army child: Rub some dirt in it, get up, and try again. This might have been my first job rejection, but it certainly wasn’t the first time I was left feeling defeated. Constant relocation and the discomfort of starting over are staple characteristics in the life of a military kid. In that particular instance, though, I chose to rely on attributes that held even more value: resiliency and perseverance. 

#5: Stand At Ease

As a military family member, there are many unknowns. “Where will we be living next year?” was undoubtedly the most common in our house. “Where are you from?” was always the question from strangers. “Will we go home for Christmas?” “How long will dad be gone?” Unknowns and unfamiliarities, at times, seemed to define my childhood. However, what came from those unknown circumstances were outcomes that far surpassed any expectation I could have imagined. 

I met people and formed lasting friendships that span the diameter of the world. I lived in places that allowed me to see some of the country’s most renowned historical monuments, parks, and cities. As a result of my dad’s duty assignments, I was able to ski down the mountains of Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Canada and attend my first hockey game in Ontario. I traveled to Nicaragua to visit an orphanage and serve food at a shelter for the homeless. I spent a week in Germany with my parents’ former landlords- the first people my mom and dad met during their first duty station as a married couple. I spent a summer in Ireland teaching children at a private school and immersing myself in the Irish culture. I learned to trust the Army and embrace the opportunities. I learned what it means to stand at ease in the midst of the chaos and the uncertainties. 

I am no longer an Army brat, a title I was forced to resign when my dad retired after twenty-eight years of service. Had I been given the choice, I would have kept the nickname, solely for the joy and lessons it brought me. Now, as a civilian in the professional world, I feel that I owe any and all of my personal successes to the military. The values that were instilled in me are a direct result of the military ideals and principles that were embedded in my father nearly thirty years ago. 

I wish everyone could experience a Mess Hall Thanksgiving Dinner once in their lifetime. If not for the food, for the eye-opening experience of witnessing a glimpse into the lives of so many men and women who are, in many ways, just like the rest of us. I encourage everyone I meet to look for an opportunity to spend time with a member of our armed forces. Ask questions and listen, really listen, to their stories. I can bet you'll learn a thing or two.


About the Author:
Shurden Garrett is the daughter of a retired Col. in the U.S. Army. She moved twelve times growing up which allowed her to see much of the country and many parts of the world. She resides in Northern Virginia where she teaches elementary school. Her experiences as a military child and her passion for giving back to the veteran community that helped shape her childhood now draw her to Sword and Plough’s mission. She is excited to be a Brand Champion and share Sword and Plough’s story with other like-minded Champs.


  • So proud of my niece and her sister of they embraced the life of a “mIlitary brat”. 💖

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