In high school, Shari Wright-Pettit, MS, RDN, LD, didn’t know anything about her well-being. So she started reading science and health magazines.
“I was completely ignorant,” she said. “I remember thinking, soda is bad for you? What’s the deal? I should probably know these things as a person. I should probably know what I’m eating. I had this natural interest. It kind of snowballed from there.”
She enlisted in the West Virginia Army National Guard after high school and was wandering around Marshall University’s campus, wondering what she wanted to do with her life. She kept a notebook of a list of possible career paths, and eventually crossed off every idea until only dietetics remained. The funny thing was, she was “horrific” at science. But after attending Marshall, Wright-Pettit ended up falling in love with her classes. Now having worked for the guard for six years and as a dietitian for almost nine, she’s felt greatly fulfilled with her work.
“I’m definitely super passionate about it,” she said. “I got lucky. I feel fortunate that I found my calling.”
Here’s more details about Wright-Pettit’s interesting job in the military.
Q. What’s the story behind your experience in dietetics and how you came to work at the West Virginia Army National Guard?
A. I spent 12 years serving in the guard, so I knew the organization, the people and the jargon associated with everything. Someone I know who also works for the guard got news of an open dietitian position and asked if I wanted to apply. I did — and I got the job! Probably because I knew people and because I was prior service. I can easily serve this population because I know them. I was in their shoes.
On top of that, I get to help who I consider “my people.” It’s like I grew up with them. The people you went to high school with that you like, the comfortable people that you really enjoy, multiply that out and that’s what it’s like. Even if you disagree with them, they’re still your people. It’s a brotherhood situation. I worked in the civilian sector for a while, and it’s just different.
Q. Describe your role. What are your responsibilities, and what does the day-to-day look like?
A. My role is similar to community style dietetics. The day-to-day is always very different. It varies from answering emails, texts and phone calls to traveling over the state. I do a lot of lecturing at armories and I work weekends during drill. Wednesdays are clinical days. I check blood pressure and make sure lab tests are OK. I serve only West Virigina Guard soldiers and airmen, and their families. It’s fun because a lot of them know me. I’m always in. It’ll come up in conversation that I’m prior service and it kind of changes the dynamic a little bit.
Q. What is one thing that’s different about working for the military as opposed to working in a clinical setting?
A. People in the military have requirements they need to meet. You need to maintain a certain body mass index (BMI). The civilian population doesn’t need to worry about that to maintain their livelihood. Their job doesn’t depend on their BMI. I can’t just say to people in the guard, “don’t eat too many doughnuts.” I have to be more specific and strict with these people at times than I normally would. What we’re doing today should be positively impacting us for the long haul. I’ve never been a strict dietitian, you can eat cupcakes and still keep your position, if you drill down a little more. I work with a population that isn’t very ill, but they still can’t be messing around.
Q. What is one thing you wish you had known before starting your career in dietetics?
A. This is kind of an opposite answer, but I’m almost glad I didn’t know the dietetics curriculum, because I probably wouldn’t have done it. Science was not my forte; I struggled. But I enjoy dietetics and nutrition. I also didn’t realize that people dreaded seeing a dietitian. Why would you not want to see the dietitian? Why would you not want to optimize your health? Having that awareness may have been helpful.
Q. What has helped you move forward in your role?
A. Kindness. I think being nice is probably how I got my job here, and opportunities I receive to lecture. I lecture at armories about nutrition studies and lecture at colleges discussing my position. They have to request me. Just being kind to people is probably what has helped the most in my life and definitely with my job.
Q. Have any “hot topics” in the dietetics/nutrition industry impacted the way you do things?
A. A lot of people come to me for advice about that book they read, or podcast they listened to, with some kind of nutrition tidbit, to see if it’s legitimate. I’ll answer their questions to the best of my knowledge. I try to be up-to-date on new information as well, such as if semaglutide is going to impact what I do at all.
Q. What program or initiative are you most proud of?
A. Myself and a few nurses do safety talks with a population in the guard that are required to be in the military. We’ve been doing this since the COVID-19 pandemic. They are at risk for having the highest blood pressure and visceral fat, or belly fat, that you should not have. When we see them, we weigh them and use an electrical impedance scale, check skeletal muscle mass, fat mass and have a conversation about all that. It gives them a projected age and opens up a good conversation with them about their health. They say things like, “No wonder I feel like trash, or have high blood pressure.” That has been a success. Every time we see them, they get better. The more we do it, the more they’ve enjoyed it and they see measurable outcomes. I give the education and hard data, then they get results that are self-driven. It’s pretty cool.
Shari Wright-Pettit, MS, RDN, LD, completed a bachelor’s and master’s of science in dietetics from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, while serving as a soldier in the West Virginia Army National Guard. She completed her internship also at Marshall University. She has worked as the registered dietitian for the West Virginia Army National Guard for the last six years. Prior to that, she worked for Healthcare Services Group as a clinical dietitian in long term care for just under three years. She grew up in Ohio, but has lived in many places because of her job in the military. These places include Texas, Virigina and Germany, and she currently lives in the Charleston, West Virginia, area with her husband and daughter.