Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, helped complete the citizenship journey for more than 120 U.S. service members in a ceremony by presenting them with certificates of naturalization, Nov. 12.
While the naturalization candidates come from a variety of places and backgrounds, each one of them has something in common, they all chose to wear the uniform of a country that was not their own.
"I think it's a tremendous example that you've got a group of young men and women here that for years have taken an oath of allegiance to our constitution and put themselves in harm's way," Eikenberry said. "And I can't think of anyone who more deserves to become a citizen of the United States of America than somebody that has served in the United States Armed Forces."
For one servicemember, the journey to citizen ship lasted nearly half a decade.
"I have been trying to become a citizen for over five years," said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class, Jesus Cepeda, an engineer with the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 22, and a San Antonio, Texas native. "The paperwork had a problem at one point, but when I applied again while over here, it finally came through."
In 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law Executive Order 13269, which allowed for expedited naturalization for anyone serving on active-duty during the War on Terrorism. Subsequent policy changes allowed naturalization ceremonies to be held for service members abroad.
"In 2004, President Bush directed my agency by executive order to travel to any location to provide naturalization for U.S. servicemembers who wish to obtain United States citizenship," said Robert Looney, District Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Bangkok District. "Before that order, applicants could only naturalize while in the United States. That order had been strengthened by law, and the mandate continued by President Obama."
The naturalization ceremonies held at Bagram have become a bi-annual tradition, taking place on Memorial Day and Veteran's Day.
"It's a patriotic ceremony so that's why we chose those days to render honors to the country and to the veterans," said Army Sgt. Maj. Reginald Gooden, command paralegal Sergeant Major for Combined Joint Task Force-82, an Atlanta, Ga., native.
Maj. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Commander of Combined Joint Task Force-82 and Regional Command East commander, was also present to honor the new U.S. citizens.
"Heroes are not founded by place of birth, economic standing, race and religion," Scaparrotti said in a speech. "Heroes are those that don the uniform and answer the call to duty. Who serve selflessly with courage, understand the values they fight for, and don't just want to enjoy them, but defend them for future generations."
Hundreds attended the ceremony to watch their comrades become citizens. For one, the experience was humbling.
"It's such an amazing thing for us to be able to have this ceremony for this group of people," said Air Force Capt. Katie Illingworth, a legal officer with the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate for CJTF-82. The Oklahoma City, Okla., native, sang the national anthem for the naturalization candidates, guests and VIPs.
"It was an unbelievable honor," Illingworth said. "Just to see the people coming across the stage you can see how much pride they have and the dreams they have for their futures — it's incredible."
For some of the candidates, wearing the uniform was the most important thing to them. It was the way they chose to give back to the country they called home.
"I joined the military for two reasons," said Army Spc. Jason Freeman, a mortar man with the 3d Squadron, 71st Cavalry, 3d Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, from Valdosta, Ga. "First because I grew up around the military. The second was because of Sept. 11th. I felt that I lived in the country most of my life and I had an obligation to join the military and do my part."
Freeman, a self proclaimed "military brat" was born to English parents, but later, his mother was re-married to a service member in England. Since, Freeman has grown up in America as part of a military family.
Similarly, Army Pfc. Ronaldo Fajardo, a human resources specialist with the 3d Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, from the Philippines, sought all his life to wear the uniform of the United States.
"My biological mother married a servicemember and after 16 years of trying, my visa was approved in 2006," Fajardo said. "I went to Guam and enlisted right away. I always wanted to be in uniform - because the U.S. military has the greatest army in the world."
Putting on these ceremonies requires a lot of work and coordination Looney said. There is a lot of logistics involved beginning with the service members making their application for citizenship. Military naturalization applications made by service members while deployed to Asia are handled by an office in Lincoln, Neb.
"We make the arrangements with the service members, their commanding officers, and the legal departments on the base," Looney said. "They also help us make all the arrangements for our stay here, get us from the airport in Kabul, help us with transportation."
These ceremonies are held in many different locations in the U.S. But, according to Looney, the ones held for the military are different.
"I think everyone that does this would say that the military ceremonies are especially moving because you understand that these military members could be in dangerous situations very shortly," said Looney. "They also seem to have the strongest desire as a group of anyone to just serve and make sure that their citizenship means something for them."
Participating in the ceremony overseas also made it more meaningful to the new citizens.
"It means a lot more to me to have it here in country than it would back in the states," said Freeman. "I hold it in higher regard than what I would if I had become a citizen in the states because I was with the ambassador, the general and all the other Soldiers."
Following the ceremony, the new citizens were treated to a video message from President Barack Obama, congratulating and thanking them for their continued service.
"Doing the ceremony here, like this, was a great honor for me," Cepeda beamed. "It means a lot for me to be overseas fighting for the country that wasn't mine yet — but now it is, and it is a great pleasure."
This work, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry congratulates America's newest citizens, by CPT Michael Greenberger, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.