New soldier citizens
The next year, on 9/11, the 9-year-old Lopez watched the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in horror.
“We came here to make a better life for our family,” said Lopez, now 19. “So what really got me was everyone crying for their loved ones.”
On Wednesday, Lopez was one of 34 soldiers at Fort Jackson to become a U.S. citizen. Today, he and the others will graduate from basic combat training and begin their service in the U.S. Army.
Lopez said he plans to serve at least three years, then become an FBI agent to help prevent attacks like 9/11 from happening again.
“I want to make it a career,” he said.
Wednesday’s naturalization ceremony was held in conjunction with the opening of a satellite office for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Fort Jackson was chosen for the office because it is the Army’s largest training base, readying about 35,000 soldiers a year. Nearly each week during the year, an average of 20 soldiers are sworn in as citizens, depending on the number of companies in the training battalion. Today’s graduating battalion is one of the largest, with six companies. Some battalions field only three.
In the past, the soldiers would have to work through the state’s two field offices in Greer and Charleston. Now, they can take care of their paperwork and other issues on base.
“It’s one-stop shopping for the soldier,” said Jerri Adair, of the Charleston field office.
Since 9/11, 70,000 service members have used a special federal program to achieve citizenship that allows them to begin the process one day after entering the military. Prior to 9/11, a service member would have had to be in the military for a year before starting the naturalization process.
The process is structured so that it mirrors the 10-week basic training cycle. The soldiers at Fort Jackson not only have to endure the rigors of basic training, but have to put in extra time to study for the naturalization exams.
For Saunoa Hala, 19, of American Samoa, who also achieved citizenship on Wednesday, the tests came naturally.
“It’s what we learned in high school in social studies,” she said.
Hala said she joined the Army out of patriotism, but also “to show that a female can serve.”
Franzia Alleyne, 34, a native of Guyana who was living in New York, said the Army was a path to higher education.
Ten members of her family travelled from New York to the “family day” ceremony on Wednesday, in which the families of all the members of the battalion — not just the naturalized soldiers — see their soldiers for the first time in 10 weeks.
Alleyne’s mother, Donna, was impressed by the ceremony, which included the firing of howitzers, clouds of red, white and blue smoke, a review, speeches from commanders and the reciting of the Army Creed.
“It made me cry,” she said. “It’s something you must experience.”
Drill Sgt. Kenneth Williams trained some of the naturalized soldiers. He said they were as hard-working, if not more, than any soldiers in the service.
“They understand the freedoms we have and appreciate them more than other soldiers,” he said. “And they motivate the other soldiers.”