Story and photo by Rick Emert
Nearly 50 servicemembers and Family members sat in a small room at Army Community Service Feb. 26, miniature American flags in their hands or on the table in front of them. The excitement in the room was palpable.
Most of those assembled were servicemembers in or out of uniform.
Having previously pledged to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” on this day they would take another oath – the Oath of Allegiance to become U.S. citizens.
Although she had aced the exam that morning, the swearing in was a surprise for Doneilia Bush, 64th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
“It was supposed to happen March 3,” said Bush, who returned from an Iraq deployment in early February. “I’m so surprised they got the paperwork done so soon. My kids don’t even know yet.”
With their citizenship packets in front of them and their guests seated or standing in the back of the room, the Soldiers and Family members watched videos to the music of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” and “God Bless the USA” before taking the oath.
“I was tearing up there; I’m tearing up again, now,” said Bush moments after taking the oath.
Despite donning the Army combat uniform, foreign nationals with lawful permanent residence serving in the U.S. Armed Forces are held to most of the same requirements for naturalization as nonservicemembers, according to Jamel Gilbert, Relocation Readiness, Army Community Service.
Servicemembers are exempt from certain naturalization requirements, including residency and physical presence in the United States, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site.
Servicemembers can become U.S. citizens even while deployed, Gilbert said.
“They have a process set up where, through their (personnel) services they can contact … an immigration representative who is deployed also and will come out to where they’re at to do the swearing in,” he said.
Before they can swear in however, they have to pass the naturalization exam and demonstrate that they can read and write English.
The oral exam consists of up to 10 questions on history, government and geography. The questions are pulled from a list of 100 questions in the study guide or packet, Gilbert said.
“I was terribly nervous about taking the exam,” Bush said. “It was so built-up and so hyped, but it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.”
Bush, from Trinidad and Tobago, lived in the U.S. for 32 years with a combined 10 years of Army service before taking the Oath of Allegiance, she said.
“I was 12 when I left my country,” Bush said. “I’m no longer part of that country. I’ve lived here almost all my life. Not being a citizen made me feel like I didn’t belong.”
Another new citizen at the ceremony, Doreen Sargema, a Family member of a retired Soldier, had been living in the U.S. for 25 years before deciding to become a citizen.
“We’ve (she and her husband David) talked about it off and on, and I think being here for this long, I know I’m not going to go back (to the Netherlands) anymore,” she said. “I feel like I missed out on this voting. I wish I could have been part of it. I think that’s why I really pursued this. This was a really big part of history; we have an African-American president.”
David, a retired Soldier who works for the Department of Corrections, said it was a big decision for his wife.
“I’m very proud of her. She comes from a big family. She’s making a decision that she feels is best for her,” he said. “I think a lot of times when I go to vote, she feels a little left out. She’s very up to date on politics and knows what’s going on in the community.”
Now, she’ll be able to put that political savvy to use by voting.
Some of the new citizens had already decided the first things they would do as Americans.
Spc. Jocelyn Herrod, 230th Finance Battalion, 43rd Sustainment Brigade, was going to get her U.S. passport. Bush’s co-workers were planning a citizenship party for her.
But, Sargema’s plans were not what one might expect.
“We’re going out for Chinese food,” her husband said.
Only in America.