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Washtenaw United: The personal side of Memorial Day

Community Action Network executive director Derrick Miller
Derrick Miller
Community Action Network executive director Derrick Miller

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


Derrick Miller is a social service entrepreneur and leader with over 20 years dedicated to service. In his dedication to service, he served honorably in the United States Marine Corps and was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In his post-Corps years, Derrick shifted gears and became an educator, which set the foundation for his future accomplishments at Community Action Network. At Community Action Network, he cultivated a grassroots organization into one of Washtenaw County's most successful and impactful nonprofits with over quadrupled service delivery and doubled operational revenue in his initial 3 years as Executive Director.

Derrick also leveraged his experiences as an executive committee member of Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth (WACY). As a bi-racial (white/Latinx) nonprofit leader, Derrick has also taken it upon himself to establish CAN’s first-ever committee on diversity, equity, inclusion, and advocacy, and worked with Michigan Nonprofit Association to conduct DEI assessments with CAN staff and board members.

CAN has been a leader in addressing challenges for Washtenaw's BIPOC community and taking a more active role in addressing inequities.

Today, through Derrick's leadership, CAN is administratively 100% paperless with a technological capability rivaling that of medium to large nonprofits, which was a critical aspect of CAN’s ability to pivot its operations literally overnight to serve the growing needs caused and exacerbated by the pandemic.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to a Memorial Day edition of Washtenaw United. Memorial Day is always observed on the last Monday of May and honors the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military. It is a grateful nation that takes time today to remember those who paid the ultimate price for dedicating themselves to service in the name of freedom. For the families of those lost, it is a great day of importance as it is for the veterans who have returned home without some of their friends. Our guest today currently serves as executive director of the Community Action Network. It's an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit dedicated to erasing inequity in our community by providing educational and enrichment programs for children and teens, by offering support services for under-resourced families, and by challenging the systems that are rooted in racism and inequality. Derrick Miller leads the organization utilizing his educational background and the experiences afforded him serving in the military. And he's recently returned from a ten-day trip to Ukraine where he was supporting refugees. Derrick, thank you for sharing your time with us on Memorial Day.

Derrick Miller: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: What went into your decision to initially join the Marines?

Derrick Miller: I've always had service in my blood. I actually do have a family a military family background. I actually ended up going in the approach of dual enrolling in the Marine Corps, as well as in college. And so, it was what was called a 90-day--92-day--reservist. And the day after my high school graduation, I went to boot camp. And after boot camp, I came home and started my college years and continued to chip away at my time in the Marine Corps and ended up getting activated a few times along the way.

David Fair: I was going to say most of your time was spent stateside, but, in specific, in 2004, I believe, it was your unit called to duty and sent to Iraq. It's often said while most of us will run away, our military members and first responders will run right towards danger. What is it like to get on that transport plane or ship knowing that the only thing that is certain upon arrival is danger?

Derrick Miller: Yeah. I mean, fortunately, the U.S. military does an excellent job of preparing us, both physically and mentally, for these kinds of challenges, in dealing with ambiguity, and in adapting to whatever environment we end up finding ourselves in. And, certainly, that was put to the test in 2004 to 2005. I ended up being stationed on the outskirts of Ramadi, which is pretty deep into an area that was very much not appreciative of the U.S. military.

David Fair: Right. Well, in your time in the Iraqi theater, you were involved in conflict and not everyone in your unit made it home. What happened?

Derrick Miller: Yeah. Ultimately, we lost four Marines in our unit. It actually happened within 24 hours. Two of which were killed through an IED, a roadside bomb. We also lost two more. That was in preparation for Operation Phantom Fury, which was the push into one of the towns. And it was a heavy equipment unit that was creating a preparatory berm along the Euphrates River, ended up tipping into the river itself, where one Marine was trapped inside, and the other Marine passed in an attempt to try to save the fellow Marine.

David Fair: How difficult is it to know that you're coming home and your fellow soldiers are not?

Derrick Miller: It's not easy. You know, survivor's guilt is definitely a thing. And so, it has presented lifelong challenges, not only for myself, for many fellow Marines, and even importantly, since that time, several have also passed away from various other challenges and suicides among them.

David Fair: I'm sure you carry this with you all of the time, but on this day, on every Memorial Day, do you take special time to think about it?

Derrick Miller: Absolutely. It's unavoidable.

David Fair: Our Memorial Day edition of Washtenaw United continues on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with veteran and Community Action Network executive director Derrick Miller. Well, you just mentioned this Memorial Day is specifically for those we've lost through military service. We continue to struggle to best serve those who have made it home. The suicide rate for veterans is alarming. You've mentioned that has touched your life. Are you, in any way, shape, or form, pleased with the services available to perhaps prevent these kinds of tragedies postwar?

Derrick Miller: Uh, it's been a little bit all over the map. There's always been a pretty well-documented history of challenges among, like, say, the VA. There's certainly a lot of great aspects to it, but also a lot of challenges in terms of access issues, timeliness of service, and things of that nature. What has proven to be very helpful, at least for our unit, is we actually share a Facebook group that, as both, you know, service members of our particular unit, but also even some of the spouses of the members as well. And one of the things that happens every Wednesday--every Wednesday-- for well over, what, 15, 20 years at this point, one of the spouses actually does a check-in. It's something that we would always do in the military, which is that you always have your roll call at the beginning of the day and often at the evening as well. And the spouse of the Marine who ended up taking his life. And she does these check-ins, and everybody checked in. It might be as simple as a like on the post that she shares for the check-in or comment. But everybody does, and it helps us kind of stay in touch with each other.

David Fair: I have heard it said that you can sometimes leave the war, but the war never leaves you. That sound about right?

Derrick Miller: It does. It also, I will say, has, in my opinion, some benefits in the sense of, like, my recent trip to Ukraine, it was all spur because a fellow Marine that I served with, we were both equally troubled by what was going on. You are uniquely familiar with what was being described in the news and knowing how devastating and actual reality of what is actually transpiring, as well as my own background in social services and knowing the sheer challenges and limitations of government agencies, as well as NGOs, to be able to adapt and respond to those emerging needs. And so, that combination of empathy but also of military experience was just enough for us to, you know, decide to make a leap and try to do as much as we can to help some families that are going through some of the most atrocious things that we've ever seen in the 21st century.

David Fair: Given your experiences in Iraq, was there any trepidation in heading back towards another war-torn country, or did that old military instinct of running towards danger just kick in?

Derrick Miller: So, what I would say is that there's always fear. The big difference is not letting that dictate your decision-making. And that's one of the things I've always appreciated about my time in the military is that knowing that you're afraid of something, but still being able to have the strength and willpower to do something about it. The other element to it is just knowing that you can deal with a lot of ambiguity. And so, even making this decision and within four days' time, I literally booked my flight and was gone, having no clue where I was going to be staying and in what conditions and things like that. So, packing for the worst and just still moving forward and knowing that whatever it presents. Being able to be competent and being able to not only take care of myself, but also make sure to provide some meaningful help for families that need it.

David Fair: Will you go back?

Derrick Miller: I would love to. To be honest, the needs are even worse than when I was there. It is a very dynamic environment that's going on as well. The reality is, is that I would need resources, significant aid for my first journey, even within about less than a week of deciding to make this happen, sending out announcements and actually being in country and raising over $32,000 and deployed half of that in cash. I actually brought back cash with me and got it converted into Polish zloty and got that directly in the hands of Ukrainian families that were in the process of crossing the border, as well as those that were in forms of temporary housing and refugee centers as well. I easily--easily--could have gone through all of that within less than a couple of hours and have had would have had like no concern on, like, the efficiency of allocating those resources. That's just kind of demonstrates how serious the needs are.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United, and we're talking with veteran and Community Action Network executive director Derrick Miller. While you were there, what did you see that perhaps we here at home can't feel or experience?

Derrick Miller: I mean, part of it is just the sheer magnitude of what's going on. You literally could spend a day on the border in and of itself, and that is like a constantly evolving element as well. But during the time that I was there, that was when Russia was starting to fall back away from Kiev and it was becoming, emergingly, becoming clear that they were going to be focusing on the eastern side of Ukraine. And along that same time, the Ukrainian government was notifying all the families in the Donbass area they're like, "Hey, is going to get really bad in this area." They highly, highly recommend moving and getting out. And so, a lot of the folks that I was interacting with on the border, they were from Mariupol, they were from Kharkiv, and a lot of other Donetsk and Luhansk areas and the Donbass region as well. And so, these people are making days-long journeys to get to this point. And then, all you have to do is spend a couple of hours on the border just to see like this snapshot of what's transpiring. You know, not only families that are coming and elderly, but also just the severity of issues that were coming up. I mean, just for some context, on my very first day on the border, it was actually in the evening, I had connected with my Marine buddy that had been there for about a week at that point. And he and three other Americans, he was kind of giving us the walk through on how the whole border process works, how we can cross it, and how we can be potentially helpful. And so, we're on the other side of the border--on the Ukrainian side of the border. A car pulls up and a woman and child get out. A gentleman that was driving them unloaded like six or seven bags. It was already obvious at this point that this mother and child, there's no way that they're going to get all their stuff across the border. So, using translator apps and things like that, basically communicate or, you know, we're here to help. Understandably, there's some trepidation from the mother and child. But they relaxed because this is a common interaction. It's like these families have no choice. Like, you know, it's a matter of just a necessity to have to put some faith in strangers. And so, we helped them get to the border. We're waiting in line to kind of go through the whole process as well and communicating with the family. And then, the mom begins to start to trust us a little bit more and shows us an article on her phone. And as we're reading and looking at this article, it's about this 11-year-old child that was shot in the face while trying to leave Mariupol from a Russian soldier. You know, seconds later, she turns her child's face around and sure enough, that's the child. And, you know, this is within 2 hours on the border and seeing an entry wound from a bullet that ripped through her face and an exit wound that, unfortunately, creates a much messier end.

David Fair: These are experiences that will leave lifelong impressions, as were your experiences in Iraq. As you take note of the cumulative impact of these experiences, how are you going to spend the rest of this Memorial Day?

Derrick Miller: You know, it's always a balance between trying to stay healthy and do things that improve our own mental health and things of that nature, but also doing things that are in respect and in honor of those that have made the ultimate sacrifice.

David Fair: Are you familiar with the tradition of leaving coins at the gravesites of military personnel?

Derrick Miller: I am. Actually, during one of my call-ups was doing a funeral guard as well and so uniquely familiar with a lot of the things in the process of sending off a deceased veteran.

David Fair: I bring this up because a coin left on the headstone lets the deceased soldier's family know somebody has stopped by to pay respects. A penny means you visited. A nickel means that you and the deceased veteran trained at boot camp together. A dime means you and the deceased veteran served together in some capacity. So, I just want to say, if you see a coin at any of the area's cemeteries today, please let it be. Derrick, thank you so much for your service to country, to those suffering tremendous hardship in Ukraine, and to those in our community trying to overcome inequity and inequality.

Derrick Miller: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate what you're doing to help elevate the sacrifice and sacrifices that so many people make.

David Fair: That is Derrick Miller. He serves as executive director of the Community Action Network in Washtenaw County. He is a military veteran, and he spent time with us today sharing some of his story as we mark Memorial Day, Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU F.M. and HD one Ypsilanti.


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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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