Servicemembers Become U.S. Citizens During Ceremony at Bush Library
By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service
COLLEGE STATION, Texas, March 11, 2005 It's been a long time coming, but U.S. Army Spc. Arafat Khaskheli, who was born in Saudi Arabia but whose nationality is Pakistani, can finally say that he is truly an American.
Servicemembers raise their right hand while taking the oath of allegiance for U.S. citizenship at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, College Station, Texas, on March 11, 2005. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"The feeling is really great, I've waited for this a long time," Khaskheli, 28, of Fort Hood, Texas, said today as he and dozens more servicemembers took an oath of allegiance to the United States and became U.S. citizens during a ceremonies at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.
In all, 47 military personnel became citizens, the majority coming from nearby by Fort Hood, in Killeen.
"Becoming a citizen today is going to open up a lot of doors for me, a lot of opportunities," Khaskheli said.
Nearby, Army Pfc. Ociel Dela-Sancha, 24, who came to the United States from Mexico, was also celebrating his new citizenship. "I've been in the country for 12 years, and it's great to be an American," he said.
Sancha, who recently returned from Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division, said he joined the military because he "wanted the best" for his family." With his wife, Araceli, holding their 2-month-old daughter, Arely, by his side, Sancha said now he is even prouder to be a soldier because he is an American.
Air Force Senior Airman Jose Gomez, 23, a native of Medellian, Colombia, could only smile about his new citizenship. He said there is irony in the fact that he joined the military to protect a country to which he did not belong.
"The way I see it, many citizens do not serve, while others do," he said. "I chose to serve, and this is my home. My family and friends live here, and anybody that messes with my home (country), I have to defend it."
For those servicemembers getting their certificates of citizenship today, the process was eased by an executive order signed by President George W. Bush on July 3, 2002. That order expedited the process for alien and noncitizen military members serving on or after Sept. 11, 2001, in the war on terror.
Other changes that made the process smoother included streamlining the application forms, many of which can now be completed online, and waiving the $380 fee. In some cases, military members are exempt from some requirements.
For example, a servicemember only needs to serve one year of active duty to qualify for citizenship. Before this change, the requirement was three years.
During his keynote address, former President George H.W. Bush said he was taken back by today's ceremony at his library. He said that many people had been honored there, but that today's occasion was one of the finest.
Looking out at the servicemembers, he called out the names of some 20 nations from which they hailed. Bush identified the group as a "United Nations of wonderful people" and said they had "earned the honor being bestowed upon them."
He said American servicemembers represent the "heartbeat of America," and that "duty, honor, country is not merely a slogan for the military but it is a ... creed of service by which they live their lives."
"Not only do these modern day patriots make us proud," Bush said, "they renew within our hearts the meaning of liberty."
At a press conference later, the former president called today's ceremony an "emotional service." "To see these people who are serving their country now becoming American citizens, tears started to flow there, because there is something so fundamental about this," he said. "This is the strength of our country. And I felt that up there, and it was a wonderful feeling."
Meanwhile Eduardo Aguirre Jr., director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the first to hold that position, told the servicemembers who had just become citizens, "I can indeed say that the future is bright."
He said that people are often surprised when he tells them there are more than 45,000 non-U.S. citizens in the armed forces.
"You and your families demonstrate with your service remarkable self-sacrifice for your adopted country," he said. "Even before you had secured for yourself the rights associated with American citizenship, you chose to defend our country and answer a call for a cause greater than self.
"I salute with reverence you and all of those in uniform who are willing to give the ultimate sacrifice to preserve freedom," Aguirre added.
He also pointed out that as part of a new initiative to award citizenship to servicemembers, immigration officials recently began holding naturalization ceremonies in war zones, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
Immigration officials say there are some 14,000 citizenship applications for immigrant servicemembers still pending. More than 2,000 servicemembers became U.S. citizens this year; 58 of those were awarded posthumously.
Since Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched in March 2003, about 12,000 military personnel have been sworn-in as new U.S. citizens.