FORT EUSTIS, Va. (April 16, 2013) -- Like many American Service members, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Shawon Tucker is from a small town. She wanted to continue her education beyond high school, but her working-class family could not afford to send her to college.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Shawon Tucker serves as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the dining facility at McDonald Army Health Center at Fort Eustis, Va. Born and raised in a small town in Alabama, Tucker said despite her shyness and insecurity about leaving home, she took a chance and joined the Army for the opportunity to go to college and experience new things. She said joining the Army was "the best decision she ever made," and encourages others to take chances and pursue their goals, even if they are afraid or uncomfortable. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason J. Brown)
Looking for a way to achieve her goals, Tucker thought of the Army. The thought of enlisting and traveling far from home - potentially into harm's way - made her "uncomfortable," to say the least. But she knew she needed to take a chance and pave her way. She enlisted in March 2000 through the Delayed Entry Program.
For her, taking a chance paid off.
Tucker serves as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the McDonald Army Health Center dining facility at Fort Eustis. As a nutrition care specialist, she oversees the DFAC's daily operations, ensuring a staff of 13 contract employees provide the best service possible to the nearly 10,000 customers served monthly.
The Moundville, Ala., native said she grew up "shy and meek," hardly the Soldier she has grown into throughout the course of her 13-year career. She said Moundville is "neighborly, a place where everybody knows your name." That familiarity made leaving home an even more difficult decision.
However, even as a high school student, Tucker realized she couldn't let her inhibitions prevent her from making a better life for herself.
"In my situation, the easiest way for me to go to school was to join the military, and that was a big reason for joining the Army," she said. "But it was also because it was something that was uncomfortable to me. Even then in my life, I was thinking if it's something that made you uncomfortable, but you really want to do it, then just go ahead and do it.
"Often times when you do that, things come out a lot better than you think," Tucker continued. "You can do a lot more than you think you can just by doing things that scare you. My career has worked out very well."
Her career in the Army has taken her across the world in a variety of duty positions. Tucker has deployed to the Middle East twice: her first deployment was to Balad, Iraq in 2003 with the 21st Combat Support Hospital, and most recently in 2007, when she deployed to Baghdad with the 20th CSH from Fort Bragg, N.C.
Additionally, she served as a chaplain's assistant in 2004, and most recently spent three years as an Advanced Individual Training instructor at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, grooming the next generation of nutrition care specialists.
In all her experiences, Tucker said one of biggest life lessons she learned was to keep an open mind about the people around her.
"One thing that resonated with me was to never go anywhere with a preconceived notion of how people are or could be," she said. "The people we met and worked with, they're just like you and me. They had families and children, and worked hard to make a living.
"Even the people I went downrange with, the Soldiers on my left and right - I learned not to have preconceived notions about how they're going to perform," she explained. "There were people that blew my mind because they really stepped up and went above and beyond. Now I always give people the benefit of the doubt."
Tucker said her experiences in training Soldiers cemented her new-found appreciation for the value of people, and made her want to work harder to help them succeed.
"Being an instructor, you get to see students learn and grow in that short 10-week period as Soldiers and people, and you see them blossom," said Tucker. "We had students come in discouraged because they didn't think they'd pass the course, but to watch them make it to the end and succeed; that's the most rewarding thing to see."
The future holds even more promise for Tucker. She was recently selected for promotion to sergeant first class, and plans to complete the two remaining classes for her bachelor's degree this summer. In the long term, she wants to finish her career in the Army, complete a master's degree and possibly become a teacher.
Regardless of where her career leads her next, her teenage epiphany remains her beacon for success, and serves as advice she shares with others.
"If I didn't join the Army, I'd probably still be in Moundville, and I wouldn't be as happy as I am with my life," she said. "If anyone is scared to do something great but doesn't think they can, do it anyway. You just never know where you'll go, who you'll meet, what you'll learn and what you're capable of."
Senior Airman Jason J. Brown, 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs