As a college senior at Xavier University, Michael X. Garrett had no idea how incredible his future career would be.
“If you would have told me that I’m going to come back here in 40 years as a four-star general, retired, and be the commencement speaker at Xavier, I can’t even say what I would have told you,” said Garrett, who addressed the Class of 2023 at the university’s undergraduate commencement ceremony in May.
Then again, what college student expects to become the leader of the U.S. Army’s highest command? At the pinnacle of his nearly four-decade career, Gen. Garrett led the U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM), comprising more than 750,000 Army, Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers. His success earned him recent recognition from both his alma mater and his longtime employer. Xavier recently renamed the drill floor of its Armory — home to the university’s ROTC program — in Garrett’s honor, while the Army featured Garrett in a commercial marking the return of its “Be All You Can Be” campaign.
Garrett — whose father led his own accomplished career with the Army — retired in September, capping off his remarkable story of military service. But over 40 years ago, that story was just beginning on Xavier’s campus.
The Winding Road to Xavier
Bearing the middle name of Xavier, Garrett might have been destined to become a Musketeer. He had “absolutely no tie to Cincinnati” before studying at the University. Originally from Cleveland, his family spent many years in Fort Benning, GA, before moving to Baumholder, Germany.
After attending Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school, his college experience began in Munich. “After a semester, my dad looked at my grades and he said, ‘Hey, Mike, you’re wasting your time and my money,’” Garrett recounted. ”’We’re going to plan B.’”
Plan B, Garrett said, was getting a day job while continuing his education at night. It didn’t take long before Garrett got his grades up and, soon after, saw a change in scenery when his sister decided to attend Xavier.
“My dad didn’t want her to go alone, so they sent in my [transcripts],” he said. “My grades at this time were really good, and they accepted me.”
While his parents were able to pay for his first year of studies at the University, Garrett said he had to find a way to pay for his final two years. He found that way when, while walking around campus one fateful day, he saw a sign recruiting students for Xavier’s ROTC program. The rest, as Garrett put it, is history.
Becoming a Musketeer
Garrett called his experience at Xavier “foundational.” On his way to becoming a distinguished military graduate, Garrett also developed a love of philosophy while at Xavier. “I think that is because when I was here at Xavier, every semester, [I was taking] either a theology class or a philosophy class,” he said.
When he thinks back on his days as a college student, Garrett admits his shortcomings as readily as his successes. While he believes he was a great cadet, Garrett said he could have applied himself more seriously when it came to his studies. He ties this feeling to a recurring dream of his — one likely relatable to most people — in which he is back in college.
“[In my dream], it was right before graduation: there’s one class I’ve got to pass, there’s one test I have to take, and I could never get to that class. I could never find it,” Garrett said. “As I thought about it, it kind of sums up a big part of my experience here at Xavier. I don’t regret anything that I did. I attribute all of it to learning, to making Mike Garrett the person that he is, but I certainly did not work as hard as I would today if I got to do it all over again.”
Garrett recognized that many people could probably empathize with that sentiment, and that what he learned in college served as a foundation for the insights he would gain in the years after graduation. After earning his degree and becoming a U.S. Army second lieutenant in 1984, he grew in many facets of his life — but no area of his growth was more important than his faith.
The Cornerstones of Family and Faith
Garrett said his favorite part of being Catholic is going to confession (also known as reconciliation), a sacrament in which a priest listens to and absolves the sins of the penitent. In fact, he loves it so much that he will sometimes approach unsuspecting priests and request a confession outside the confines of a church. Say, for example, in airports. “I just walk up to them, because I don’t think they can say no,” Garrett said with a smile.
While Garrett didn’t truly come to grips with his faith until after Xavier, the University’s environment — in addition to the influence of his family — helped plant the seeds for his devoutness, something he said might be the most important outcome of his Musketeer experience.
But as much as he credits Xavier for the man he became, Garrett said his college experience wouldn’t have been possible without the example set by his parents. His father, Edward Garrett, joined the Army at age 16. He was two years younger than the minimum age requirement to enlist, but by the time the Army found out, he was old enough to remain in service with his mother’s approval.
Gen. Garrett said his father was a tough man, one he deeply admires. “I’ve served in some of the most elite units in our army,” Michael Garrett said. “You know, I have spent time with people whose lives have been captured in books. But all of them pale in comparison to my father, Command Sergeant Major Edward Garrett.”
The Garrett family’s decades of military service will now be carried on by Michael Garrett’s son, who shares the same name and was commissioned into the Army in 2018 after graduating from West Point.
Gen. Garrett’s Message for the Next Generation of Leaders: ‘Don’t Walk Past Trash’
While Gen. Garrett, at the time of his own graduation in 1984, couldn’t have dreamed of being the man at the podium 39 years later, he had no trouble determining the message he wanted to impart on Xavier’s Class of 2023. It’s what he called his “most important rule” in life.
“It’s a pretty simple thing — don’t walk past trash. I don’t walk past a piece of trash,” Garrett said. “I think the bigger lesson for our new graduates is, literal trash is certainly one thing. But then there’s the figurative trash. There’s walking by something that you know is wrong and not doing anything about it. There’s the trash talk that goes on in your own head in terms of self-doubt. Find something that helps you stay focused, helps you stay grounded, and helps you to stay true to those things that you really, really, really believe in.”
While the simple things in life can often get overlooked, Garrett said it’s those principles that are often the most important. He related that to his own experience and said his trajectory — from a college student who simply wanted to graduate to one of the military’s highest-ranking generals — demonstrates that today’s students can achieve whatever they want if they apply themselves.
“I think what it shows is that if you leave here with a mission and if you leave here with a few principles and you stick to those things, there’s absolutely nothing that you can’t do and there’s absolutely nothing that you can’t master.”
Xavier University’s Military and Family Center
Xavier University is nationally recognized for its support of veteran and military-affiliated students. They benefit from modern facilities, dedicated advising, career counseling services, a mentorship program, and more. The Xavier University Veteran and Military Family Center provides personalized, world-class services to enhance the educational experiences of veterans, service members and their families. Click here to learn more.
This article is re-published with permission from Xavier University. Click here to view the original version online.