News: American Samoan to American
By Sgt. Phillip Valentine
BAGHDAD — Service members gathered in Al Faw Palace, Feb. 15, to witness 107 Soldiers from 44 different countries take the oath of U.S. citizenship; the 16th such naturalization ceremony that has taken place in Iraq since 2003.
One Soldier considers the 16th the most important.
For Pfc. Lata Pitolau, a unit supply specialist assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team-Augmented, 3rd Infantry Division, becoming a U.S. citizen in the ceremony has provided her some additional rights.
The American Samoa native grew up enjoying many of the rights that U.S. citizens have because the country is a territory of the United States. One of those rights Pitolau did not get to enjoy, however, was the right to vote.
"When I came into the Army, I wanted to be an American so I could vote," said Pitolau. "Now I can vote for our president, our leaders."
Pitolau left American Samoa after graduating high school. She then went to Utah, where she attended Brigham Young University. While there, she decided to join the U.S. Army even though she was not a full U.S. citizen.
Shortly after she joined, Pitolau deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in January 2007. She returned to Iraq for a second deployment in December 2009.
Not only could Pitolau not vote as a non-U.S. citizen, she discovered she could not be an Army officer either.
Now that she has become a citizen with full rights, Pitolau plans to participate in the Army's "Green-to-Gold" program, which allows enlisted Soldiers to become officers. She also plans to pursue her career goal — law.
"I would make a good lawyer," said Pitolau. "If I don't think something's right, I don't back down."
Pitolau's supervisor, Sgt. 1st. Class Mesahchai Y. Freeman, 1st Brigade Combat Team—Augmented, 3rd Infantry Division, and a Newark, N.J., native, attended the event. She said she could back that statement up from personal experience.
"[Pitolau] is dedicated, focused, and like a sponge. She absorbs and retains everything," said Freeman. "She can do multiple things, yet she can focus on her tasks. All-in-all, she's a Soldier, by definition."
After the ceremony, Freeman smiled at Pitolau.
"I am proud," Freeman said; "like a proud parent."
The road to citizenship was not an easy one for Pitolau. She had to fill out a lot of paperwork, go through in-depth interviews and take an intensive test.
"You had to know everything," said Pitolau. "They gave us 100 questions to study and then asked only 10 questions."
She sat in one of a multitude of seats at the naturalization ceremony and listened as Lt. Gen Charles Jacoby, deputy commanding general for operations, U.S. Forces — Iraq and commanding general, I Corps, spoke to the crowd.
"These Soldiers made contributions to our country long before their citizenship," said Jacoby.
When the ceremony ended, Pitolau, hands filled with an American flag and paperwork verifying her U.S. citizenship, smiled: "I am happy and excited about this. I can submit my Green-to-Gold paperwork."
The ceremony lasted about an hour, a moment in history. For Pitolau, it was the start of a new life filled with possibilities, as an American citizen.