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The Conflict in Iraq

Military Salutes 34 New Citizens

Number of naturalized troops has grown since restrictions were eased after Sept. 11.

August 04, 2004|Kathleen Hennessey | Times Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. — Army Staff Sgt. Hilbert Caesar stared straight ahead Tuesday afternoon, his off-white wingtips planted firmly next to a wooden cane. When asked, he rose slowly and vowed to support and defend the United States.

It was a promise he had already made good on.

In April, Caesar, a 26-year-old native of Guyana, lost his right leg on a bomb-laden road in Baghdad. At the time, he was one of about 32,000 non-citizens serving in the U.S. military.

On Tuesday, Caesar, along with nearly three dozen other military personnel and their family members from 27 countries, joined another growing group: newly naturalized soldiers.

"I knew I wanted to be an American," said Caesar, who was 11 when his family left his South American birthplace for New York. "I've always been an American."

U.S. citizenship has never been a requirement for service in the military, and executive orders expediting the naturalization process during wartime have been issued in nearly every major conflict since World War I. The war on terrorism has been no exception.

In July 2002, President Bush issued an executive order eliminating the three-year waiting period for military personnel and their families seeking citizenship. Since then, about 8,000 people have been naturalized.

After Oct. 1, such orders will no longer be necessary; Congress passed a law last year making the 2002 executive order permanent. The law also waives the $240 naturalization fee for military personnel and allows immigration officials to conduct citizenship interviews and swearing-in ceremonies at U.S. embassies.

Caesar, who joined the Army six years ago, said citizenship was not his motivation for enlisting. "It was the opportunities," he said.

Caesar's Army career took him to Iraq in the spring of 2003. On April 18, four bombs blew up his convoy as it traveled on a road in Baghdad.

Caesar has been undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Hospital officials say he has recovered surprisingly well -- adapting to an artificial limb, refusing to use a wheelchair and assisting other wounded soldiers. On Tuesday, Caesar avoided talking about his injuries and focused on his plans to continue to serve in the Army.

"I'm a soldier," he said. "This kind of stuff happens."

According to the Defense Department, 38 non-citizens have died in Iraq. About half were given citizenship posthumously.

Several new citizens at Tuesday's ceremony said military officials had helped them with their paperwork and prepared them for the exams.

"I would have done it anyway," said Army Spc. Reyes Hernandez, 22, who served 15 months in Iraq. "But before I wasn't motivated."

His platoon has six other non-citizens, Hernandez said, and they helped one another prepare for the tests. He said their reasons for applying for citizenship were both patriotic and professional.

Citizens in the military have greater opportunities for advancement. Non-citizens cannot be promoted to officer rank and cannot receive some security clearances.

"More doors are opened for me," said Hernandez, who was born in El Salvador.

Pvt. Vonessa Robinson, 19, clutched her soon-to-be-invalid green Jamaican passport but said she wasn't worried that changing her citizenship would change her identity.

"That will always be a part of me," Robinson said of her birthplace. "This wasn't a hard decision. It was clear, and they made it easy for me."

Hernandez, Caesar, Robinson and 31 others were sworn in by Eduardo Aguirre Jr., a Cuban-born naturalized citizen who is director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. When Aguirre declared that they were officially American citizens, Caesar smiled broadly, exhaled in relief and answered like a soldier.

"Hoo-ha!" he said.

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