By Staff Sgt. Jeremy Crisp
18th Airborne Corps
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq – The largest United States naturalization ceremony to be held overseas took place on April 12 at the Al Faw palace.
Two-hundred fifty nine servicemembers representing 71 countries held up their right hands and pledged their allegiance to the country which they already defend – thus becoming America's newest citizens.
"I am deeply honored to be here with you today," said the ceremony's presiding officer, Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander, Multi-National Corps – Iraq.
"Our nation's unique quality is that it weaves the world's cultures into a great American tapestry, and our military benefits from their strengths," Austin continued. "Thank you all for sacrificing so much for the United States and for the Iraqi people."
Servicemembers from across the Iraq theater of operations gathered at the palace to take part in the ceremony, representing the Army, Navy and Marines.
The age group of the new Americans spans decades, with the youngest naturalized citizen being 19, the oldest 47.
For a pair of servicemembers from the Fort Bragg, N.C., based 82nd Airborne Division, it was all smiles and relief that the process to become U.S. citizens came to fruition.
"This is just amazing," said England-born Spc. Matthew J. McCallum, a personal security detail Soldier with the 82nd's 1st Brigade Combat Team. "There are so many more doors open for me now."
"My family doesn't even know that I did this," said Spc. Jose L. Mandario with 3rd Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 1st BCT, 82nd Abn. Div.
Mandario's family originally emigrated from the Philippines and now resides in Long Beach, Calif. He plans to surprise them tonight with an email of his new citizenship certificate.
"They will be very happy," he said.
On hand to lead the servicemembers in the United States Oath of Allegiance for Naturalized Citizens was John Lafferty, director, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services – Rome.
The servicemembers raised their right hands – following Lafferty's lead – and recited the oath that bears some exact verbiage in which all said upon joining the military:
"... I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same ..."
Then rounds of applause erupted from all three levels of the palace as America's newest citizens succumbed to smiles, laughter and tears.
Each servicemember was given a certificate of citizenship by Austin, and an American flag from Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph R. Allen, MNC-I's command sergeant major.
One Soldier in attendance succumbed to her overwhelming experience and was at a loss of words for how she felt.
"This is all so overwhelming ..." said Pfc. Zully L. Schaeffer with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 20th Engineer Brigade, Fort Bragg.
Schaeffer's family is originally from Peru and they now reside in Allentown, Penn. She could only come up with one word for how she felt about becoming a U.S. Citizen: "Happy."