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Immigrant Troops Become US Citizens

The five-sided courtyard in the center of the Pentagon hosts a variety of special events.  And there was a particularly unusual one there on a glorious spring day this week.  VOA's Al Pessin reports.

A total of 22 mostly young, mostly low-ranking soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines sat shyly in two rows of chairs, wearing their dress uniforms, surrounded by well-wishers and facing a stage lined with American flags.

ANNOUNCER:  "Ladies and gentlemen, please rise and remain standing for the entrance of the official party."

The deputy secretary of defense, a two-star general, and two officials from the U.S. Immigration Service took the stage.  The 22 service members in the front rows were among the more than 30,000 non-citizens serving in the U.S. armed forces.  And on that day they were becoming American citizens.  Among them was Olu-fola-hanmi Ayo'ola Omotayo Coker, a U.S. Navy seaman from Nigeria.

"If you told me this five years ago, I'd be laughing at you, you know," he said.

Seaman Coker came to the United States five years ago through the visa lottery system, at the age of 30.  He says his family and friends could not believe it when he joined the Navy two years later, in search of adventure.

"When I first signed up, they were looking at me crazy, but I had to let them know the opportunity the Navy's giving me," he recalled.  "And now they see what the Navy is doing for me, and they're proud of me now."

Seaman Coker is a religious program assistant, helping chaplains organize services and other events in all religions.

Sitting nearby is an administrative clerk with a dream, Teresia Kamau, 22, from Kenya, a corporal in the United States Marine Corps.

"People don't really know you're not a citizen unless you tell them you're not a citizen, but it is different because it does come with boundaries," she said.  "You can't do everything an American citizen can do."

Among the things Corporal Kamau could do was be assigned to a seven-month deployment in Iraq in 2006, which she calls "a really great experience."  One of the things non-citizens cannot do is become officers, and that is the next thing Corporal Kamau wants to do.

Before long, it's time to get down to the business of the ceremony.

MASTER OF CEREMONIES:  "Would you please raise your right hands and repeat after me.  I hereby declare on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity..."

The applicants are standing, with their right hands raised, focused on the oath, while the spectators around them are beaming.

MASTER OF CEREMONIES:  "...that I will support and defend the constitution and laws of the United States of America..."

They clutch small American flags, as the buttons on their uniforms sparkle in the sunshine.

MASTER OF CEREMONIES:  "...and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.  So help me God.  Congratulations, you are America's newest citizens."

Major General James Graves welcomes the new citizen service members, who came from 15 countries, mainly in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

"We are a greater country," he said.  "We are a stronger country.  We are a better country today because you have joined us this day as Americans."

Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England points out that the honorees volunteered to do something very difficult, that they did not have to do.

"Long before this day, you had volunteered to serve your nation of choice in a most demanding occupation, and during one of the most demanding periods in the nation's recent history," he said. "Will the newly naturalized candidates please rise and come forward to receive your certificate when your name is called.   Corporal Jose De Las Bada Wright.  Petty Officer Third Class Tamisha Houselan."

The new citizens move forward, one by one, to get their citizenship certificates and a handshake and photo with the senior officials.

Last in line is Seaman Coker.

When it's over, family, friends and strangers who happened to be passing through the courtyard gather around to congratulate the new citizens.  Seaman Coker says he feels different than he felt just a few minutes earlier.

"I feel different again now that it's finally here, you know," he explained.  "It's just like they told you you got a check, and now here is the check, you know, you've got it in your hand.  That's how I feel now."

Corporal Kamau has difficulty finding words to describe her feelings.

KAMAU: "It's like more Ahhh!  It's…  [I'm] still excited.  Still excited. 
PESSIN: "Do you feel that something important changed a few minutes ago?"
KAMAU:  "Actually, a lot has changed.  I can put in my officer package tomorrow, so we'll see.  We'll see."
PESSIN: "You've got it ready to go tomorrow?"
KAMAU:  "Yes, I do.  Yes, I do.  That's a funny thing.  I do, so, yeah."

General Graves points out that as legal immigrants, these people were able to join the U.S. military, but now, he says, they can do something more.

"When they become citizens they get to be part of the process of determining what the policy is through the privilege that they have at the voting booth," he said.

The Pentagon says 37,000 service members have taken advantage of a program instituted by President Bush after the September 11th attacks to enable non-citizens in the U.S. military to become citizens through a fast-track process.  Another 22 were added to that number at the Pentagon this week.  Just a few days earlier 159 others participated in a similar ceremony while deployed in Baghdad.

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