01/27/2014 09:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Is an American


Commercial breaks during 'The Kingdom.' The words of Thomas Jefferson. A laugh and beer. The sigh of goals unmet.

My grandfather was shot by Nazis. He was 19 in Belgium out in the middle of the night on patrol when a machine gun opened up and took half his platoon out. Archie Walls took a round through his thigh and it blasted a half inch of bone out the other side, leaving a gap between what was there before. He fell to the snow, tied it off, and pulled himself over a mile back to camp. My grandmother Evelyn still doesn't like to talk about it. "Are you going to fight the damned war again in my kitchen?" They were together when he went in -- a farmer and his girlfriend -- and after he made it back to camp that night he spent the next year of his life in the hospital as they kept trying to patch his thigh bone with chunks of metal but he'd spike a fever after infection and they'd have pull it out. He walked with a limp until he passed away peacefully a few years ago, a Midwest scene of farming and a sunset on the inside of his casket lid. He and Evelyn had my mom and my uncle and she married my dad -- who served proudly in three branches of U.S. military - and they had me and my brother, Jason.

What is an American? It can be hard to keep track. Ask 20 people down the street and you'll hear 20 different answers, and if you ask someone across the border you'll get something else. A complex mix of life's rich pageant; our wars, our wins, our losses.

3 days after 9/11, the Coldstream Guards played the Star Spangled Banner at Buckingham Palace.

'For the first time, the Queen allowed her troops to play The Star Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States, during the ceremony in tribute to the many who died.'

I've thought of this moment many times in the years since. We were all shook by the towers falling because our story had been one of fighting for right and always across the pond. That day changed my path and thousands -- maybe millions -- of other Americans who hadn't really given it all much thought before then. Thought of what it means to be an American. Right now I'm in a race to be a member of U.S. Congress but until now I've been in the entertainment industry. I've danced with Lady Mary, made out with a Gilmore Girl and have an Emmy on my desk. Back in '01 I was just starting out, living in a one bedroom in Burbank when my ex's cell phone started ringing early that morning. We didn't have cable tv which was a decision made by finances so we watched the plane hit the second tower next door and I was sure that that would be that. I'd been to those towers a bunch of times growing up, skipping school to go skateboarding around them, and I knew that the fires would eventually go out because the buildings were just too fucking big to fall down. I knew it. It wouldn't happen. I remember seeing the towers for the first time across the water from New Jersey, me a small town kid from Minnesota whose father had been transferred and of course we went because you go where your dad has work. Taking the train alone to the city and going up to the restaurant at the top. I took the photo above in '95 with Natalie and Eric and Robert and Dan. We all slept at Dan's grandma's tiny place in Chelsea.

And then a few years later the south tower collapsed and we were all changed. The world changed and as far as personal impact goes the ripples were just as strong as war. What made 9/11 so shattering was the blanket of media we're all now living in and how we can be completely surrounded by it. Used to be a newspaper would give you one article -- 5 minutes of your time -- and maybe 5 or 6 minutes of the evening news, but then the rest of the stories. Now the news doesn't turn off and if the day is slow they have to create more angles to keep the thing going, to keep the channel tuned in and the ad dollars coming in. And that's fine and that's the way it works and the ad world has been good to me. But that's why 9/11 hit so hard. People died and we started looking at maps of the Middle East.

But then Springsteen wrote "The Rising."

And then a skinny kid with a funny name gave one hell of a speech.

And we started remembering it.

We started remembering what our grandfathers fought for. What we would fight for. What we would give it all for.

'There's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there's the United States of America.'

We are Americans. We don't always get it right and the past couple years have shown that we can get it pretty wrong sometimes. Our focus can fall to dark places and we can start to follow the manufactured gods of commerce and a big win damn the consequences. What is an American? It's up to all of us. It's up to you and it's up to me too.

Americans build -- we don't take down. Americans strive -- we don't lay down. Americans inspire -- we don't discourage. Americans lead.

Don't let the bastards get you down. We're number one and we didn't get here by letting life get the best of us. Fight for Right. Be true. Don't let up and give em hell. Be kind and be generous.

Make your own definition.

And to our fallen mothers and fathers, our grandmothers and grandfathers, the words of the Boss:

May your Strength give us Strength.
May your Faith give us Faith.
May your Hope give us Hope.
May your Love give us Love

Brent Roske is a candidate for U.S. Congress. Learn more at