Ex-Pacelli student, now a 4-star general, returns to offer advice on Patriot Day

Born on 9/11: Georgia teen talks joy and sadness on 18th birthday

Wesley McDowell, a senior at Northside HS in Warner Robins, Ga., was one of the 13,238 babies born on Sept. 11, 2001.
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Wesley McDowell, a senior at Northside HS in Warner Robins, Ga., was one of the 13,238 babies born on Sept. 11, 2001.

After his Patriot Day speech Wednesday at St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School, U.S. Army Gen. Michael Garrett was asked by junior Enrique Dickerson for advice he would give teenagers.

“When you talk to people, look them in the eye,” the general told approximately 300 students in grades 8-12 “… Something as simple as that sets you in a whole different category than a whole bunch of people.”

It was among the nuggets of wisdom Garrett offered during his visit to the school he attended for several years in the 1970s.

Garrett’s visit was arranged by Pacelli alumnus Lt. Col. Gregory Majewski, a U.S. Army public affairs specialist, taking advantage of the proximity with the general being in Columbus to speak at a Fort Benning conference.

Pacelli principal Ronie Collins was one of Garrett’s classmates. She told the Ledger-Enquirer the general’s visit gives the students “someone to aspire to be like, a very faithful man, very much one that’s very focused and dedicated and a mighty Viking.”

Garrett deflected the praise from Collins.

“I’m sure there are a bunch of people out there,” he said, “when they hear that Mike Garrett is a four-star general leading the largest organization in the Army, they probably go, ‘Huh. That can’t be the Mike Garrett that I know.”

Garrett, 57, has been in the Army his entire life, first as the son of retired Command Sgt. Maj. Edward Garrett of Columbus, then as a soldier himself.

Although most of his audience Wednesday wasn’t alive during the 9/11 attacks 18 years ago, it’s more important to remember that day’s significance, Garrett said.

Beyond the 2,977 deaths, Garrett urged the audience to “never forget the heroism and compassion we witnessed that day and the days that followed. The first responders and patriots from all walks of life responded with speed, courage and compassion.”

The nation “rallied together as one, galvanized in our stand against a new threat,” he said. “Young men and women, many just a little older than some of you in here, signed up and volunteered to join the Armed Forces, knowing full well that they would be sent far from home to protect the American people, our values and our ways of life.”

One of those patriots, Garrett noted, was 2002 Pacelli graduate Pvt. John Henderson Jr., who died in 2005 during a combat mission in Afghanistan.

Through “challenges, setbacks and heartbreak” during his Army career, Garrett said, “my faith, my family and my dedication to serving our country grounded me. Each one has contributed to my moral compass.”

Now, Garrett commands the U.S. Army Forces Command, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with around 745,000 soldiers and 96,000 civilians.

All of which shows, he said, “Life is full of opportunities, and the only person that’s going to judge you is God, so stay right with Him and learn from your mistakes.”

Faith was one of the three factors Garrett mentioned as driving his success, along with family and service.

“Prayer helps me reflect, refocus,” he said, “and there’s almost a meditative quality that helps me sort out what’s important.”

Garrett challenged the students to consider what they are passionate about and to ask themselves, “How can that passion blossom into something long-term and fulfilling? … I ask you to be deliberate and thoughtful in terms of how you answer.”

Opportunities are fleeting, Garrett warned, so he also challenged the adults in the audience.

“You play an important role in encouraging our young people,” he said. “You are their sources of inspiration. Open their eyes to the possibilities. Offer them direction to find their own dreams. Then provide them support and a pathway to achieve that dream.”

Pacelli senior Daniel Forlines, 17, appreciated the advice he heard from the general, especially because he is applying to the service academies.

“I hope to one day serve my country in a role of leadership as someone who can be a model for others,” he said.

Knowing the general came from St. Anne-Pacelli to reach that height, Daniel said, makes his goal seem more achievable.

“We didn’t have the exact same experience, but we walked the same halls and seen the same things around town,” he said. “I can relate to that. It’s not something too far away or impossible.”

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.