We Pledge Allegiance...

Soldiers become citizens

For some, the shortest path to American citizenship is through Iraq. At least that was the case for the 178 foreign-born service members sworn in yesterday at Balad Airbase, about 70 miles north of Baghdad—in the largest naturalization ceremony to have taken place in Iraq to date.

Balad was once home to Iraq's air force academy, and the place is enormous. From the landing zone it was about a 10-minute ride to Sustainment Theater (the base's cinema), where the ceremony was held. Twenty thousand soldiers live and work here as part of the 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, alongside about 7,000 local Iraqi staffers. And it even has its own newspaper, the Anaconda Times.

Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security, flew in for the occasion, which coincided with Veterans Day. Before the ceremony he answered some questions from the press. "What motivates people to serve their country is also what motivates them to become U.S. citizens," he said. Post-9/11 changes in immigration law have allowed military personnel who are legal permanent residents of the U.S. to fast-track their applications for citizenship rather than having to wait the mandatory five-year minimum that typically applies to green card holders. Over 30,000 have been naturalized since the executive order came into force, and of those, 4,000 have earned their citizenship while serving abroad. That the country is willing to put an army in the field that is made up of people from around the world is one of its greatest strengths, says Chertoff, because it demonstrates that anyone can own a part of what the country stands for. (Well, almost anyone; you do have to be a legal permanent resident.) When it was suggested that citizenship might be driving noncitizens to enlist, Chertoff laughed out loud. Brig. Gen. Gregory Couch also dismissed the notion, saying sarcastically that this might be a "great recruiting tool" that they had never before considered.

Chertoff's keynote speech echoed similar sentiments during the ceremony. "I can't think of people who are more deserving of citizenship then those who are fighting to defend the country even before they are citizens," he said. "They understand that freedoms don't come free, and they are willing to make sacrifices even before they reap the benefits of citizenship." He called this the most meaningful ceremony he had ever presided over. And proving that there was no end to his generosity for the day, he noted that it was a fine-looking group—fulsome praise from someone who has attended ceremonies that included beauties like actress Charlize Theron. The newly naturalized servicemen—from 53 different countries, including Cuba and China—had a variety of reasons for applying for citizenship. Spc. Glenda Manayon said she had applied so she would be able to bring her father's side of the family to the U.S. from the Philippines, where she was born. It will also mean that she will have an easier time getting a federal job once her tour here is done. Iraq, where she has been stationed for the past five months, is her first deployment since she enlisted in 2005.

After the ceremony there was cake served at the base's dining facility, which is known as the "D-Fac." Pfc. Willex Saintril (who said "no way" did he ever think he'd end up in Iraq) said he felt very good about being an American citizen. Originally from Haiti, he said today's swearing-in was another story he looked forward to bringing home from the field. The best part about being a U.S. citizen? "I'm able to vote next year for Obama," he said. "Or maybe Hillary." Seeing as the next American president will have a lot to do with where and for how long Saintril is stationed next, that's a pretty good reason to celebrate.