The U.S. Army is stepping up efforts to recruit more skilled soldiers by offering immigrants a fast track to U.S. citizenship if they enlist.
The move comes as the Pentagon prepares to send several thousand more troops to Afghanistan and with the war in Iraq in its sixth year.
The U.S. Army chief of staff, himself, swore in a group of recruits at a ceremony in New York. Half of the 32 new Army recruits are immigrants from countries such as Pakistan, India, South Korea and Bangladesh.
General George Casey welcomed the new soldiers, recruited under a new initiative called MAVNI - Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest. It's a pilot program that promotes enlistment as a short-cut to U.S. citizenship. Recruits are required to have at least two years of legal U.S. residency.
Lieutenant Colonel Margaret Stock says the Army is looking for people with language skills or medical expertise. "We're also looking for people who have cultural ability. They understand certain cultures that we are dealing with. We found, in our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, that having people who were culturally knowledgeable is critical to success on the battlefield," Stock said.
So far, the MAVNI program, which began in February, has enlisted 52 new soldiers, 60 percent of whom are college graduates. The Army wants people who speak one of 35 languages it deems "strategic."
Stephen Chi speaks Cantonese and four other languages. He will be working as a petroleum supply specialist. He says he enlisted, not for the U.S. passport, but for the camaraderie. "I grew up in Norway, my parents are Chinese, so joining the Army will give me a chance to really belong to somewhere," he said.
Twenty-four-year-old Toniya Mishra, who will start as a water treatment specialist, says the Army approached her after finding her resume on the Internet. While her starting salary is less than she hoped to get with a masters degree, she says there are other perks. "They provide insurance for your family, and you get to travel a lot in different countries, and it's better than doing anything else in a market like this today," she said.
For the recruits, the next stop is basic training, a rigorous nine weeks of physical fitness, discipline and training.And some then will go to Iraq or Afghanistan, where they could face the dangers of combat.
Krishna Melpati - a medical doctor from India - has a concern. "My only fear," Krishna says, "is like, getting through the basic training."
So far, 380 people have applied. The Army says it will accept up to 1,000 before the program expires in December.