MIGHTY 25: Monica Bassett tackles food insecurity, one military family at a time
Monica Bassett had a roadmap for her life before meeting her soldier and it certainly didn’t involve becoming a fierce advocate for the military community. Her early years laid the foundation of strength she’d lean on to stand up despite the challenges.
“I grew up on the border of Mexico in Texas as the daughter of a Vietnam War Veteran and I am both Mexican and native Indian,” she shared. “Growing up as a minority with having blue-collar workers as parents wasn’t easy. They worked really hard and tried the best they could but we had really difficult times and although my dad went to work every day, he struggled with addiction to alcohol my entire childhood.”
More than hard. Basset was teary as she described attending Alateen (for children of alcoholics) meetings, her brother's gang life and living in protective custody at times.
“I remember getting woken up as a kid by my mother to call my friend whose father was a bail bondsman because my dad was in jail,” she said. “Summer vacations were going to the prison.”
One of her first speaking engagements was at Alateen. Bassett would do everything she could to go the opposite direction of the choices her family members had made.
“I guess it was just embedded in me to help,” she added.
She left home to attend college and pursued a degree in criminal justice, intending to use it to assist other kids and showing them there was a way out. Bassett admitted she wasn’t yet ready to face the emotions and trauma of working that closely with children experiencing what she had, so she went into corporate work. She landed a job in Colorado Springs and fell in love with it all.
“I owned my own home and was an executive doing HR for a state corporation,” she said. “I was stable, happy and I had no ties. Then I fell in love and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was obvious something had been missing from my life and man, could Greg make me laugh like nothing else. When Greg asked me to marry him, I dropped everything to say yes and begin a life with him.”
And there were a lot of things to drop with Greg being a soldier. The needs of the Army would come first.
“I went through a roller coaster of emotions initially from being angry at my spouse from taking me from what I thought was a thriving situation to feeling so alone. I lost my identity and everything I knew in an instant,” she explained. “I got it out of my system though by realizing it’s not his fault, he doesn’t choose to leave me or miss everything. Once I got past all of that I had to decide what I was going to make out of being an Army spouse and living this life.”
After nearly a decade of moving, the family found themselves stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas during the pandemic. While the world weathered isolation, military families continued moving and starting all over with even less resources and support.
“I guess it was just embedded in me to help. As a child, my grandmother basically raised me because my parents had to work and didn’t have the luxury of taking maternity or paternity leave,” she explained. “We were always that family at the cusp of poverty where we struggled but were told we made too much money. It was crazy because we were literally taking freezing cold showers in the middle of winter because our water heater broke and we couldn’t afford a new one. We’d boil water and try to make it work. I remember watching my parents break down over the bills.”
Year after year, the Blue Star Families annual Military Lifestyle Survey reports that financial worries remain one of the top stressors for military families.
“When I was at Fort Riley families weren’t asking for money or luxury items, they just wanted food. This was during the pandemic and everything was taking forever to be delivered during a PCS. One family’s stuff was literally being held hostage by a moving company and the spouse just broke down on a social media post,” Bassett shared. “She shared that they’d been without things for months, exhausted all resources and had resorted to digging through her neighbors trash to salvage things for the morning. Reading that made me angry and I just couldn’t not do something. I just wanted to feed people. This is what gave me the idea to start a pantry in my garage.”
It was more than just feeding military families in need; Bassett offered a safe space to ask for help without fear of shame. Word spread quickly of the pantry and volunteers started raising their hands to help run it and do home deliveries.
Her work and dedication to serving would lead to Bassett being chosen as the 2022 Armed Forces Insurance Army Spouse of the Year ™. When her family moved to Fort Leavenworth in 2022, she thought her days of running a pantry were over. The leaders at Armed Forces Insurance took her out to a breakfast that would change everything.
“They wanted me to replicate what I did at Fort Riley here at Fort Leavenworth. More than that, they wanted to support me in scaling it and making it a nonprofit. I was terrified,” she laughed. “I remember going home after that crying, in fear and excitement. When I talked to Greg about going all in on this, he was all for it.”
Stronghold Food Pantry was born.
The United States Department of Defense released a report not long after, which revealed nearly a quarter of the Armed Forces were experiencing food insecurity. Despite being covered more recently in the last few years, it’s an issue Bassett witnessed firsthand long before families started speaking up.
“Stronghold does not have rank or income eligibility requirements and that sets us apart from other organizations. We are also a judgment-free zone, endlessly welcoming and safe for people to come get help. You don’t know their story. When people see me they see an officer’s wife but have no clue I came from a dysfunctional family with gang affiliations and experienced abuse,” Bassett shared through tears. “I want people to take off their rose-colored sunglasses and have empathy for others because we don't know what others have gone through.”
In May 2023, Bassett pitched her nonprofit’s mission to Second Service Foundation and was chosen as one of the semi-finalists.
“I don't want people, children, spouses or whoever comes to the pantry to think that they are less than and that this moment defines their future, that the fact that they needed a hand up, defines the rest of their trajectory because it doesn’t,” Bassett said. “Just like your past doesn’t define who you are. You can absolutely let it propel you forward.”
To learn more about Stronghold Food Pantry and Bassett’s work, click here.