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In Armed Forces, and Now Citizens

July 02, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — In what the keynote speaker called a marriage of two great American traditions -- "service to country and the game of baseball" -- 53 active-duty U.S. military personnel were sworn in as new citizens Saturday night before the Padres-Giants game.

The crowd at Petco Park cheered as if the home team had just rallied for a victory.

It was an emotional moment for some of the new citizens.

"When I go back to Iraq and if something bad happens to me, they'll send my body home with an American flag," said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Xiomara Suttles, 33, who was born in El Salvador. "Now I know that that flag will be from my country."

Most of the Marines and sailors have served either in Iraq or the Persian Gulf, with more deployments to come.

"It's like I'm finally a true part of the country I'm serving," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Hector Estrella, 26, who was born in Mexico. He has done three six-month overseas deployments in seven years.

"I feel I owe this to my Marines," said Cpl. Selia Seiffert, 30, of Germany. "This way, if we're fighting in Iraq, they'll know I am just as much an American as they are and they can trust me."

Since Sept. 11, a number of measures sponsored by the Bush administration have led to an expedited process for active-duty military personnel to become U.S. citizens.

Before the changes, military personnel often were stymied by the military and civilian bureaucracy and the constant shifting of duty stations.

Since the changes, more than 20,000 military personnel have become citizens, 75 of them posthumously. Officials estimate that more than 40,000 military personnel remain eligible for citizenship.

To enlist, noncitizens must be legal residents (green-card holders). Noncitizens are not eligible to become commissioned or warrant officers, and are restricted from certain high-security jobs.

Federal Magistrate Barbara Major administered the oath of citizenship to the 53, who represented 20 countries.

Debra Rogers, San Diego district director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, called them "true-blue American heroes who have put their lives on the line to protect our way of life."

Sandy Alderson, Padres chief executive officer and a former Marine infantry officer, in his keynote remarks, quoted the song "America" by Neil Diamond:

"Everywhere around the world

They're coming to America

Every time that flag's unfurled

They're coming to America."

With citizenship comes opportunities as well as obligations, and the new citizens pondered both. Many waved small American flags as the fans, settling in for the second part of an Independence Day weekend doubleheader, waved and whistled.

Cpl. Victor Ortiz, 21, of Mexico, who served in Ramadi, Iraq, during some of the heaviest fighting, said that being a citizen will "open doors for me." He wants to join law enforcement when his tour is complete.

Sgt. Nate Greenough, 25, of England, who served two tours in Iraq, will leave the service soon to become a sheriff's deputy in Orange County. Citizenship is a requirement before he can pin on the badge.

Besides, Greenough said, he's felt American for a long time and already has acquired the requisite love of hot dogs and baseball. "I've been there, done that, and now I get the T-shirt," he said, laughing.

For some, explanations of what the future will bring as a U.S. citizen came with difficulty.

"It's uplifting, that's all I can say, it's uplifting," said Petty Officer Willie Nuas, 29, who was born in the Philippines.

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