Servicemembers Achieve American Citizenship in Iraq
By Sgt. Kristin Kemplin, USA
American Forces Press Service
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq, July 4, 2006 For soldiers like Army Spc. Guillermo Paniagua, a nuclear, chemical and biological specialist with Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, enlisting into the Army meant more than just joining the military - it meant joining the United States.
Servicemembers recite the oath of citizenship at Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory, Iraq, July 4. Seventy-six soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors from 29 different countries became American citizens during the ceremony. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kristin Kemplin
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
In a Fourth of July ceremony, Paniagua and 75 fellow servicemembers from 29 different countries took the oath of citizenship inside one of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's palaces here and became citizens of the country they serve.
"Thousands of immigrant troops are making extraordinary sacrifices for America," said Jack Bulger, Rome-based district director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for the Department of Homeland Security. "They are defending with their lives liberties which they have only today secured for themselves. It is only fitting that, as a grateful nation, we're bringing the citizenship process to them here in Iraq,"
Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander, of Multinational Force Iraq, and Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, were on hand to commend the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines for their achievement.
"Before us stand some great citizen-soldiers of 29 different countries," said Casey, "and we are happy to welcome them as the newest citizens of the United States on this 230th birthday of our nation."
Casey told the new citizens their achievement is especially meaningful. "Troops, yours is the highest form of citizenship," he said. "You have shown the courage and the determination in this difficult task of bringing freedom to the Iraqi people."
Chiarelli said their diversity reflects that of the nation. "Citizenship is not limited by birth, background, gender, race, ethnicity or creed," said Chiarelli. "There is no doubt our true multi-culturism is epitomized today."
For servicemembers like Paniagua, gaining American citizenship is the final step in a long process.
"It took a long time for my parents and I to establish ourselves as permanent residents in this country," said the soldier, who came from Guanajuato, Mexico, to the United States in 1984 with his family. "I am excited. (Twenty-two) years later, I can actually say I am a citizen."
Paniagua's achievement has become more common among the immigrant ranks of the U.S. armed forces. This is the seventh citizenship ceremony held in Iraq since the start of the war. The number of immigrants taking the oath continues to grow, partly as a result of an executive order enacted by President Bush.
"Out of respect for their brave service in time of war, our president signed an executive order providing them the opportunity to petition for citizenship in the United States of America," said Casey.
Bush issued the order July 3, 2002, to speed up the process of citizenship for immigrants serving in the nation's military services. Immigrant servicemembers can now qualify for citizenship after serving honorably for one year in the armed forces or for serving on active duty during an authorized period of conflict, among other qualifications listed under the Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 328.
"I applied for citizenship when I got to Iraq about seven months ago," said Army Spc. Andrey Agashchuh, a native of Ukraine who gained his citizenship in the same ceremony with Paniagua.
Agashchuh, a Missouri National Guardsman serving with 110th Engineer Battalion, 130th Engineer Brigade, said he originally planned to submit the application for citizenship upon returning from the deployment. Upon his arrival in Iraq, he found out he could complete the process while deployed - a process that can take immigrants outside the military up to five years to complete.
Agashchuh said he is grateful the military has a process making it easier for immigrants to become true citizens. Both Agashchuh and Paniagua agreed that gaining the freedoms guaranteed to all American citizens on the day of the nation's birth made the event special.
"July 4th is a great day to be an American - but an even greater day to become one," said Bulger, who administered the oath of citizenship.
(Army Sgt. Kristin Kemplin is assigned to the 363rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)