Dispatch from the 101st
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2003
CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait -- If U.S. forces attack Iraq, Americans won't be the only ones on the front lines. Citizens of Romania, Mexico, Germany, Vietnam and even Kuwait will be fighting right alongside them.
In the thick book of rules that governs the lives of U.S. soldiers, there's nothing that says they must be American. And some 31,000 active duty personnel are not, the Pentagon says.
As U.S. troops mass in preparation for possible war with Iraq, it's common to run into noncitizens in desert camouflage at the string of dusty American military posts lining the border between Kuwait and Iraq.
You can find Jamaicans in a transportation unit deployed from Germany; a Mexican mechanic in the 101st Airborne Division's supply headquarters; and a German in one of the same Airborne infantry units that caused his grandfather's generation so much trouble during the Battle of the Bulge, almost 60 years ago.
For immigrants, joining the military promises a fast track to citizenship, especially under regulations issued last year by President Bush.
It also offers the same opportunities the armed forces have pitched to young Americans for decades: money for college, free training, and a chance to see the world.
"They say go to the Army, and when you get out, you get priority for jobs," said Pfc. Bao Bui, 23, a native of Longthanh, Vietnam, and a supply specialist for the 101st Airborne.
Bui, who immigrated to California with his mother, was promised $33,000 for tuition in exchange for three years of service when he enlisted in early 2001. He has since applied for U.S. citizenship.
So has Sgt. Ernesto Hernandez, 26, a Mexican who calls Temple, Texas, home.
Hernandez said he knows several Latino immigrants who have joined the Army, mainly to help their case for citizenship.
He also saw the Army as a constructive alternative to the low-wage, low-skill jobs many immigrants take, such as "working at Wal-Mart, changing oil or working at McDonald's." He is now a vehicle mechanic for the 101st Airborne, and deployed to Kuwait 10 days ago.
"It's not a bad deal," Hernandez said. He snapped his fingers. "Especially with everybody speaking English, you pick it up like that."
Commanders say many immigrants have a finer appreciation for the ideals the military purports to fight for -- freedom and democracy -- than many native-born Americans.
"In many cases, they have a personal experience from living in an area where they didn't have that freedom and liberty," said Lt. Col. Keith Pickens, chief of staff for the division rear command of the 101st Airborne. During Desert Storm, his tank platoon included a Filipino supply sergeant.
"They're a lot closer to the American founding fathers than the average American might be," Pickens said. "They have a greater appreciation for Democratic freedom."
Sgt. Izabella Gibson, 33, a Romanian, came of age behind the old Soviet Iron Curtain. She immigrated first to Germany, then joined the U.S. Army there 18 months ago.
Now she's serving in Kuwait with the 627th Combat Mobility Team, keeping track of cargo and troops arriving at Camp Udairi. She applied for citizenship last year, soon after joining, and hopes to be approved within a year, so she can apply to become a warrant officer.
"I said okay, I join up for four years, and I finish my college, and I see how it's going. I like being around the Army," Gibson said.
"We're here with everybody else, and we do the same thing as everybody else, and I think it will go faster to get my citizenship."
Typically, legal resident aliens can apply for citizenship after they live in the United States for five years. Those in the military could apply after three years, and commanding officers often helped them through the process.
Last year, Bush issued an executive order allowing noncitizen soldiers to apply immediately and providing government help with their applications.
This affects about 18,000 troops, including those deployed to the Middle East, the Pentagon said.
Noncitizens do face some restrictions. Unless they become citizens, they cannot serve more than eight years or become officers, nor do they get access to classified information.
Otherwise, immigrants say, they are treated just like everyone else.
"In Germany, you feel like you don't belong there. It's just the way the Germans are," said Gibson, who married an American. "But with Americans, it's not that way. . . . There are so many foreign people in the Army -- Hispanic, Asian -- it doesn't matter. We get along, all of us."
But Sgt. Christine Allen, 32, a native of Jamaica who serves in Gibson's transportation unit, cautioned against joining the military simply to become a U.S. citizen.
She joined in 1990 and enjoys it, she said, but Army life is hard for those who aren't committed to it. And even being in the Army doesn't mean the citizenship process will go smoothly.
She applied for citizenship in 1996. Two years later, she got word from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that she needed to fly from her post in Germany to the INS center in Miami for an interview -- three days later.
When she arrived, the agency wasn't ready for her, she said. Twice she had to fly to Miami from Germany.
"The Army is supposed to help, but they don't help," Allen said. "They did nothing. Go for college, that's better."
-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.