From business suits to combat boots
January 16, 2012
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Jan. 16, 2012) -- One in four Congress members has previously served in the United States military. However, very few congressmen leave public office to serve in the armed forces. Maj. Charles Djou, the former U.S. representative to Hawaii's 1st Congressional District, did just that. He is currently deployed with the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Task Force Spartan) in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, as a Judge Advocate General.
Djou has always been patriotic and eager to serve his country in any way he could. Even from an early age, he was involved with public service.
"When I was 16 years old, before I could even vote, I decided that I was interested in politics and I volunteered for a woman named Patricia Saiki," he said. "I didn't do anything fancy. I was a stamp licker. That was back in the time when you still had to lick stamps."
His passion for the political process caught the attention of the congresswoman, and after his many years of volunteering for Saiki, he went on to represent Hawaii's 1st Congressional District, as she did 20 years earlier.
"She got me involved in politics in the state of Hawaii and one of the amazing things for me, I think one of the amazing things about our nation, is that 24 years after I volunteered as a pimple-faced 16-year-old licking stamps, (Rep.) Pat Saiki served as the honorary chair of my campaign for the United States Congress, and I went on to hold in the United States Congress, the very seat that I was a stamp-licker for," Djou said.
Prior to his career as a politician, Djou earned his bachelor's degree in business, as well as a law degree.
"After I graduated law school, I joined a big fancy law firm in Honolulu. I practiced law for about five years with that law firm," he said.
It was Djou's passion for politics that led him to run for the Hawaii State Legislature in 1998.
"So frequently, Republicans don't challenge Democrats in elections," he said of the driving force behind his first political campaign. "In 1998, there was a seat in the Hawaii Statehouse, and the Democrat was going to win merely by filing her election papers, because there was going to be no Republican running for that seat. So, I thought I should put my money where my mouth is, and after years and years of volunteering for (Rep.) Pat Saiki, I decided I would put my name in the ring," he continued.
While his first attempt at running for public office was unsuccessful, he was not deterred.
"I was defeated in 1998, (but) because I have a thick skull, I tried again in 2000, and I was elected to the Statehouse," Djou said. "I served one two year term there."
As a state representative, Djou proved to be the right candidate and a motivated politician.
"I was very fortunate as a freshman in the Statehouse. My colleagues selected me the Republican floor leader, which is very unusual as a freshman," he said. "But unfortunately my seat was re-districted out of existence, so in 2002, I switched from the statehouse to the Honolulu City Council."
There were several contributing factors that lead Djou to serve in the United States Army.
"It's something that I find (is) an honorable profession," he said of military service. "It is another form of public service, and I have always believed in public service."
Djou's patriotism and dedication to serving his country comes partially from his parents' backgrounds as refugees who found a better life in America. His father fled from the Japanese occupation of China and his mother from the turmoil in Vietnam.
"My father fled China as a refugee after the Communist Revolution in 1949, which followed the Japanese occupation in 1940," he said. "And I think it is from that understanding of my father's side of my family that I have an interest in freedom. I have an interest in defending freedom."
His heritage contributed to his patriotism and commitment to the American ideal that all people have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
"It is through the Vietnam War and the engagement in Southeast Asia that my mom was able to come to the United States and become an American citizen," he said. "So, it is that kind of family background that I think attracted me to the military. In college I had been in ROTC, but I graduated from college in 1992, right in the peak of the drawdown."
National tragedy is what ultimately led the politician to combat. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Djou answered the nation's call and joined the Army Reserve.
"After September 11, I decided I was still young, I was still able bodied and I could still contribute, so I took a direct commission into the Army Reserve," Djou said.
In the Reserves, Djou is a judge advocate with the 22nd Legal Support Organization, and was recently attached to Task Force Spartan for their deployment to Kandahar province, Afghanistan.
"In garrison each brigade is given two JAGs, but when brigades deploy they are given three JAGs instead of two, and the third is always either a Guard or Reserve JAG," Djou said.
Djou's deployment is quite similar to other Soldiers. He still misses his family, sleeping in and eating pizza.
"It's a sacrifice. I think when you put people in harm's way, it is a sacrifice not from each individual Soldier, but it is a sacrifice made by the Soldier's families. The burden of defending our nation does not just rest on the Soldiers' shoulders, but also on the spouses and children," Djou said.
Despite the sacrifice, Djou believes in the Task Force Spartan mission of stabilizing the Afghan government and security forces.
"I think we are making tremendous progress, this is exactly what our nation should be doing. I think we are pushing back the Taliban. We are trying to stabilize this nation," he said. "I think the work here by Task Force Spartan is nothing short of outstanding."
Djou compares the selflessness and commitment of Task Force Spartan Soldiers in Afghanistan to the actions of Soldiers in other foreign wars.
"It is because our nation's goodness and what we did in Vietnam and what we did Southeast Asia, that my mother was able to come to the United States, and I have every confidence that whatever happens here, we are doing the right thing," Djou said.
While his experiences and challenges may be similar to any other deployed Soldier's, the fact that he is in Afghanistan has a different meaning than many others who are deployed today.
"I voted in favor of Operation Enduring Freedom. I find it a little interesting that I am probably the only person that can say that I voted myself here," Djou said.
Ultimately, he is proud to be of service to his country in any way that he can, whether it be making the laws for the state of Hawaii, or providing legal counsel to deployed Soldiers.
"I really, truly believe that the greatness of the United States of America and the American people, is in part, that a child of a refugee, could be given the privilege of writing the law of the land of the most powerful nation on Earth," Djou said.
In the tradition of deployed Soldiers, the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks about what he will do when he redeploys is his family and food.
"I actually am looking forward to getting a good pizza," Djou said with a laugh. "In all seriousness, I very much am looking forward to spending more time with my family. I am never ever, ever again going to take for granted holding my wife's hand or hugging my children."