Colonel Michael Demirjian is originally from San Diego, California and has served in the United States Army since 1989. Our conversation covered mandatory service, 9/11, and how everyone can improve as citizens. This interview is the last I’ll post from my time at Fort Rucker.

How he contributes as a citizen:

I believe I am a good citizen. The reason being, looking at the definition, I was born here, I follow the laws. Is there more I could do? Absolutely. There’s always more that you can do. My contribution to our citizenry is my service in the military. I am a firm believer that everyone should do something to give back to this country. From the non-political standpoint, giving back is important.

His upbringing made him the citizen he is:

The military didn’t teach me about being a good citizen. My upbringing did. Born and raised Roman Catholic, a lot of my morals and values came from that upbringing. Whether or not I believe in the doctrine now doesn’t matter. The religion helped shape my views along the way. Growing up in the church I gave back to the community; I helped others. I grew up in a fairly conservative middle class area, and it wasn’t perfect, but people paid their taxes and obeyed the laws.

Small things matter for good citizenship:

The last place I lived that wasn’t predominantly military was a series of town-houses. There was a perception that one of the people was subletting their house. Is that person a good citizen? No, I don’t think so. They’re not following the expectations of that community.

How he thinks most people could improve as citizens:

I don’t have facts or figures to back this up. A lot of my ideas are based on perception. I think people could understand the need to give back to the country more. I also think everyone would do well to take an appetite suppressant on thinking the government owes them everything. A lot of people, I get the feeling, think that the government owes them a lot. The government wasn’t designed to give you things. Its job is to establish policies for the safe and efficient running of the country.  

He thinks everyone should serve in some capacity:

People can volunteer to give back to less fortunate people; they can serve in the military; they can serve in the government. Whether it’s Ameri-Corps or Peace Corps, these organizations do a tremendous further the values of our country. My hat is off to folks in the State Department. I had a chance to work with several from the State Department a few years ago, and those people do a tremendous amount to help America and promote our values.

I love General McCrystal’s idea of required service; it doesn’t matter how you serve. But you should feel that desire to give back to your country. Whether or not you like all the policies or procedures that go on, it doesn’t matter. It’s your country. There are more ways to give back than serving in the military. Be a teacher! I’m a huge, huge fan of that. It might actually help close some of the divide we see among people right now.

He was in the Pentagon on 9/11:

One of the neatest things I remember is that I was in the Pentagon on 9/11. As we were getting ready to leave for the day, all traffic had stopped coming into the Pentagon area. I lived in Springfield at the time, and I’m wondering: how am I going to get home? There was no mass transit. So I just started walking toward a place to get a cab.

I’m there in my uniform, with the guy who was the skipper of the U.S.S Cole when it was bombed. Some random person saw us and said, “Hey, where do you need to go?” Is that person a good citizen? Absolutely. Helping someone else out, not knowing a single thing about us, just knowing something happened, and helping us out.

How attitudes towards the military have changed:

I’ve seen a change since 1989 when I first joined. Since 2001, there’s a big, big difference. Now, immediately, when people find out I’m military, they say, “Thank you for your service.” I appreciate that, but maybe that person could serve? I don’t remember anyone ever saying that to me from 1989-2001. 

(There’s also an interesting disconnect). If you look at what our country did in World War II, and compare it to what we’re doing in wars now, it’s completely different. In World War II, it was a full nation effort. Everybody was doing stuff – factories, doctors. Now, we’ve been at war seventeen years, and I guarantee there are people who don’t know we still have forces in Bosnia.

What it means to be an American:

Being an American means you have the rights associated with the country, and you’re willing to defend those rights. It also means understanding not everything will be perfect, but we also have to know we have the best opportunities in the world. Finally, you can always make a difference.

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Chris owns Chopper’s Ol’ School BBQ, a restaurant in Daleville, Alabama (I can vouch that it has awesome food). An Army veteran who served in multiple conflicts, Chris believes that our country needs to re-engage with its history and its role in the world.

How he uses his business to help others:

My restaurant offers a Thanksgiving meal on Thanksgiving, and we don’t charge anyone for it. It used to be just for military families, as my wife and I did it when I was in the service. What we realized is that the whole community needed it. We opened it up to everyone. Just the outpouring of additional support from members of the community that can afford it is great. They donate money, time, and food. To help other people in this community have a good Thanksgiving meal is one of the things I look forward to every year. It’s about a three-day process to cook everything. They do get smoked Turkey and hams, but it’s still a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

He thinks people in Daleville are equally generous:

Whether people have the money or not, people are ready to reach out and help the next person. It’s not a wealthy town by any stretch. But on the whole, within this community, they may not donate money, but there are so many people who will come out and help you do a service project.

People’s feelings toward soldiers have changed over time:

The time I served was a very different time than when my dad served. When he served, there was one conflict, and that was Vietnam. It was a terrible time in American history in terms of how American citizens treated service members.

When I first deployed, though, people didn’t hesitate to send us anything we needed. Someone sent one of our soldiers a computer so he could keep in touch with his family. Sometimes people send small things like here’s a Christmas card. When you’re overseas, it’s small things like that type of gesture that matter because you are so far separated.

I think there’s one thing that the civilian sector sometimes forgets. When you’re home for Christmas, or New Years Eve, that’s great. But thousands of families are separated. Soldiers are in the Persian Gulf or in Iraq, and sometimes the community forgets that. I don’t want to say they turn a blind eye. But in some ways, they feel “that was a decision they made.” And they’re right, I chose to serve. But that doesn’t make it any easier on a child or a wife when the parent/partner isn’t home.

As long as this conflict has gone on, I think awareness has faded unfortunately. Support isn’t as prevalent. We have a new generation of service members who are doing the same thing I did and aren’t receiving the same support.

His thoughts on America’s role in the world:

America was built on taking care of the small guy. That’s one of the Marines’ big things. Do I think we should police the world? No. Should we police things that can do damage to our country and those we support? If we didn’t, nothing would be safe. You’d never know if riding on the train in the United States whether something would happen. People are wanting to create bombs everywhere.

Our politicians could use a lesson from military leaders:

I think that it gets lost that our politicians who are supposed to be there for us are not there for us. They’re there for them. I was brought up in the military where leaders’ needs go to the wayside when compared to subordinates’ needs. You’ll notice all the senior leaders eat last at a field camp. You always take care of your soldiers before you take care of yourself.

Our schools are failing to make good citizens:

One of the thing that kind of irks me is that if someone else from another country wants to be a citizen, they have to take a test. And I guarantee you most of America couldn’t pass that test. We have failed ourselves because we don’t teach history and what it means to be a good person.

The part of American history we need to reckon with:

People need to be taught the Civil War the same way everywhere. Whether you’re in Texas or California, we need to have the same starting point. When people start talking about the Civil War, I ask one question to see whether they really know the history: What is the Mason-Dixon Line? Most people don’t know.

This week I was up in Tennessee on a veterans ride, and we visited the largest Confederate hospital. I found out they have two different tours. The regular one we did, and then another one that covers all the slave stuff. They talk about the Underground Railroad and what slaves did during these conflicts. That’s different from what I’ve seen, and no one got upset about it.

Slavery is a part of our history. I’m not proud of it, but it shouldn’t be buried. It needs to be presented. If we don’t, it’ll happen again.

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This week, I flew to Enterprise, Alabama in order to visit Fort Rucker. While there, I had a chance to speak with active duty soldiers, their family members, and veterans. Over the next few days, I will post an interview with one person from each group.

Ashley is a stay at-home mom living in Enterprise. Originally from Tampa, Florida, she has moved all over the country with her husband, who is a now a lawyer for the Army (after time as a soldier). Our conversation covered familial sacrifice and avoiding political discussion.

Being married to a solider has changed her views on citizenship:

My views have changed in the last eight years because of my husband. I would’ve said I was a good citizen before I married Nick, but now I feel like it’s to a whole new level because I have to make a lot more sacrifices for our country. Now, I do feel like I can say I am a proud American because of what I’ve sacrificed.

The biggest sacrifice is familial:

I grew up with my mom, dad, and four sisters. I never had any desire to leave my hometown. We did family barbecues all the time. There was no reason for me to look outside that area; it had everything I needed.

Then I met Nick. I gave up my family. I gave up knowing everybody. I graduated college, got married two days later, and never went back. When we got married, we left and went to Texas. Thanksgivings and Christmas were now by ourselves. I went from having a huge family that I was a part of to having my husband be my family.

Being a military spouse has shown me he truly is my family. We’ve had to make each other family, as opposed to my parents, grandparents, and siblings. We moved here last July, and Holly and Chris (my hosts and another military family) had us over because I couldn’t get home. People like them are our new family.

What most citizens can’t understand:

I think most people are good citizens. But they don’t get the sacrifice.

Nick was deployed for fifteen months. He left October of 2007 and came home January of 2009. He missed two Thanksgivings and two Christmases. My sister was sitting there complaining about everything on Christmas. And I was so irritated because she was given this gift to be surrounded by everyone she loves. I was thinking how other people would give anything to have their loved ones here.

Most people don’t have the ability to understand it. When I move to new places, I have to fill out emergency contact cards for my kids at school that have three people in the area who the school can contact, which is hard when you don’t know anyone.

I think most people still honor American values, honor the flag, honor what our country stands for. But they don’t understand the sacrifices people are actually making.

She doesn’t talk about politics with people:

People can be so close minded when they’re passionate about something. One of the reasons I really didn’t do very much in the election is that I have my opinion, but it’s like, I don’t need to show it. I’m an educated woman, someone doesn’t need to cram something down my throat trying to change my ideas.

I don’t discuss politics with my husband. I just don’t want to know anyone’s politics. I’d rather see everybody for who they are, not who they vote for.

Her problem with how we talk about politics:

What I feel like happens in our country, especially around election time, people don’t tell you the good candidates will do. They point our the other side’s flaws. I want to see a candidate for how they’ll better tomorrow, not all the things wrong with them.

She tries to shield her son from the bad parts of American politics:

I wanted to shelter Andrew (my son) from all the candidate-bashing. When the majority speaks, that’s who’s President. When he saw people burning things down after the election, I was upset. I want him to understand you can make a change by not doing that.

There are also things Trump has said and done that are just horrific. So, we’d say to Andrew, our son, it’s not okay that Trump does this. We’d ask, what’s a better way to get our point a cross?

What it means to be an American:

I think it means working together for the greater good. I don’t feel like that’s happening right now; there’s a lot of division. I’d like to think that our forefathers when they wrote the Constitution, and when Betsy Ross sewed the flag, wanted unity. I think they wanted us to recognize how far we’ve come and work together to keep that work going.

Anybody who is passionate about something and wants to make change for the better is an exemplary citizen.

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I had a chance to sit down with a couple in Sioux City who voted differently from one another in this election. Our conversation covered leadership, industry’s importance, and Trump’s appeal. Because the husband is an active duty member of the military, and the conversation covers his voting preferences, I am keeping their identities anonymous. His comments are labeled “G” and hers are “H.”

He views citizenship nationally, whereas she views it locally:

G: I’m a good citizen of the United States. I volunteered to do something for our country that a lot of people don’t do. You could donate your time to the Red Cross here, or in Texas or Puerto Rico. It’s not like being in the Air Force here is different from elsewhere – we’re helping American people just the same.

H: I don’t think I contribute significantly to the community that we’re in right now. Volunteering your time, and making yourself known in the community is good citizenship. I don’t really do that, but that might be because I live in a new community. It’s hard to get a foot in the door. When you don’t really know people, it’s hard to be a good citizen.

On Sioux City’s Challenges:

G: I feel like there needs to be something for people our age.

H: It’s a lack of opportunity.

G: If you’re not willing to work in a packing plant, or a blue-collar job, and work your way up like my dad, who did it by sacrificing his body, (there’s not a ton to do). You’re hoping that by working your ass off for 20 to 30 years, you can have the last fifteen years in an office. But either way, by the time you’re 65, your body is shot. Continue reading Leadership and Industry

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Blake is a veteran of the U.S. Army and a student at Bowling Green State University. His time in Afghanistan and his experience helping young people with drug problems have given him a firm idea on what to do to be a good citizen and what makes a bad citizen.

On the ideas that make someone automatically a bad citizen:

There are a lot of bad citizens in this country. One of my roommates is exceptionally racist. He’s very vocal with his caustic viewpoints. I think that is destructive for a community. I’ve fought for the freedom of speech. But if you’re willing to think that way, you can’t be a good citizen. I don’t think anyone who wants to take away other citizens’ rights (like he does) can be a good citizen.

His thoughts on the distinction between a good citizen and a good person:

If you don’t serve your fellow citizens in some way, shape, or form, you don’t qualify as a good citizen. Being respectful is important. But it just makes you a good person (and there’s a difference between being a good person and a good citizen). Right now, I think what Wal-Mart is doing for Hurricane Harvey is great citizenship. The things Wal-Mart is doing – sending money down, supplies down – things that it is in no way obligated to do, is (exemplary).

There’s a lot of people that aren’t doing anything. That don’t care. And, to me, that’s invaluable. You can’t say you’re a citizen of the country if you don’t want to vote, if you don’t want to be active. Continue reading Our Duty to One Another

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I had an unbelievable chance to sit down with Michael, an active duty Army officer, and talk to him about what he thinks makes our democracy work. His answer? The citizens. This interview is a bit longer than most, but I think it’s worth the read. I know listening to Michael was probably the most enlightening thing I’ve done in a long time. (Please note that the views expressed here are Michael’s as a private citizen, and they in no way represent the views of the military.)

On what makes him a good citizen.

I’d like to think so. I try to stay engaged, try to understand our issues that our democracy is dealing with. I vote in every election that I can because that’s a gift we don’t appreciate. My work, as a military officer, shows a commitment to something bigger than putting food on the table. There’s a greater cause to it. It’s a show of a citizenship, as well a job.

On the civic values of the military:

The military is a tool for the country’s elected leadership to execute foreign policy that maintains our security and serves the national interest. We are a tool to serve the American people. That’s why we have elections. A key part of that is the military is not partisan. The military can’t be seen as the wing for a particular agenda. It’s a non-partisan agency that serves the will of the people.

Why citizenship isn’t a checklist:

My friends, more than not, are good citizens. I grew up with the military, but it’s just one way to show good citizenry and serve. We sometimes get cast as the most noble, but there are people every day who are helping. Look at Texas – people have gone to help Hurricane Harvey with no one making them do so.

I think that goes to what our idea of citizenship is. I don’t think there’s a checklist that we check things off of. It’s everything that comes up in day-to-day life. What we’re really talking about is what advances our values here and across the world. I think that the perception that Americans are a bunch of terrible citizens is incorrect.

On his keys to citizenship, but why they don’t tell the whole story:

Service. Political Engagement. I wouldn’t limit it to those things, though. I think service and political engagement can be a luxury. If you have the time and income to read the newspaper every day, it’s a lot easier to be engaged. For people who don’t have the time because they are working three jobs, does that make them bad citizens? No, not at all. It doesn’t mean they don’t care for the people in their lives or don’t know or care about democratic values. It just means they have things that are more pressing like paying their mortgage and feeding their kids.

But in the ideal, understanding what our shared values are – that we’re a country where people have a vibrant say in how the country is run and where people have the freedom to speak, write, assemble without government. You don’t have to be involved in politics to further those things. Engagement is whatever you can give or understand in your own life.

His keys to democratic values, and why values matter as much as laws:

The biggest thing is that the government is accountable to the citizenry. We take it for granted in the U.S. that our leaders are accountable to us, not us accountable to them. There are places where people have never been exposed to that idea.

The idea that the government can’t restrict basic freedoms; that they’re inherent. The idea that anyone could say something critical about the government. When I hear people criticize their elected officials, I’m weirdly happy because they’re exercising a right that’s in our Constitution. It’s been our culture that the right to criticize elected officials has to be protected above all things. If a government official can throw someone in jail for saying something about that official, that’s worse than any criticism, no matter how ill-informed or nasty it would be.

From my experience in Afghanistan, democratic values aren’t just created. You don’t write a constitution and automatically have democracy. Look at Egypt during the Arab Spring. They overthrew a dictator and implemented a democracy. It lasted two years because the person who was elected wanted to rip up the constitution. Before legal democracy is implemented, people have to understand and want democracy. I mean, look at us, it’s taken 200 years, and we’re still scuffling through stuff. And I think you look at our political system today, and we see that norms matter a lot. What we, as citizens, deem is acceptable and unacceptable from our elected officials is as important as any law.

Why someone’s political party doesn’t matter for their quality of citizenship:

Oh, yes. I have many members of my family who voted differently than I did. A frustration that I have is that political choice has shot up the list of things that define a person. If you voted for X, it must mean you are all these terrible things. But I’d say on average, it’s very different from that. Most people don’t think of their vote that crucially. Everyone views things differently; I probably voted for my candidate for very different reasons than many of the other people who voted for that person. Challenging someone’s citizenship because of how they voted is shortsighted and ignores everything else that person does.

The three things we all need to know to be the best citizens possible:

We need to do a better job of telling the story of our founding. It was a very nuanced and complex process. You realize when you dig into it that the Founding Fathers didn’t agree about a lot. There was significant ideological differences among these men. Through shear compromise, we have a document and a country. Some of the arguments in the 1780’s are the same we’re having today. We can’t label these documents or men in a monolithic way.

We need to understand the good, the bad, the ugly of our country. Sometimes we just lean on love of country, which I’m all for with young kids, but as they get older, we need to talk about the darker aspects of our history. We need to talk to about our struggles to live up to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. But we also can’t forget to love our country still; all countries have these struggles. It’s like religion. You can make it better by knowing the criticisms. You’re a better citizen if you know all of it because you know that democracy requires all of us to work for it. It’s not just given to us.

We also need a basic knowledge of Constitution and laws. We assume we know it, but I think a lot of us don’t. If somebody who wants to be an American from another country has to know this stuff, so should you. It shows investment. Everyone knowing these things would enhance common knowledge and values, and it would make us connect more easily with immigrants.

Why ideas make us Americans:

We’re a country of ideas first. Everyone, with the exception of the Native Americans, came here from somewhere else. America is not about ethnicity, or tribe, or clan. Plenty of countries have democracy now, but we were founded on freedom from a monarch, and we have to remember that.

We are weirdly independent people, with a healthy rebellious spirit toward government and authority. It leads to innovation and creativity. Americans don’t wait for people to tell them what to do. If people are in need, they’re just going to go help them. They’re gonna create businesses.

On how we can all be better Americans:

Have people in our social lives who disagree with us and come at life from a different perspective. A lot of people have talked about bubbles, and I think it’s true. It’s in liberal cities and rural towns. If you make friends with different people, you’ll have a much more open view of who people are. If you’re surrounding yourself with people who have all the same beliefs as you, then of course you’ll think that’s how everyone is. It increases the notion that people different than you are the “other.” But if they’re your friends, they’re no longer the other.

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