MAG-16 Marines fight for freedom, U. S. citizenship

1 Sep 2004 | Cpl. Paul Leicht

In ancient times, the ranks of Roman legions were filled with soldiers who fought for Rome in order to earn their citizenship privileges.

In modern times, military service has often been a stepping-stone to U. S. citizenship and a chance to further military careers.

Since its beginning, the Marine Corps has been home to Marines without citizenship, who help fight America's battles around the globe. Even though they may not enjoy all of the rights and privileges that come with citizenship, these Marines still honor their sworn oath to defend the U. S. Constitution and the American way of life.

For three Marines, now serving here, the pursuit of U. S. citizenship has been somewhat of a struggle, but one not without reward.

"I first came to the U. S. when I was 11 and I grew up in New York City," said Sgt. Demetrious Kontizas, administration chief, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. "After the September 11 (2001 terrorist) attacks I was really motivated to serve this country and become a citizen.

"Now, on October 1st I will finally hold up my hand and take the oath of citizenship, but in my heart, how I live and how I see myself, I am an American," added the 23-year-old.

A native of Brazil, Kontizas said he started the application process to gain U. S. citizenship earlier this year before deploying to Iraq.

"The application process involved a lot of paperwork and took a lot of time out of our daily schedules," said Kontizas. "Its all worth it though in the end."

Originally an infantryman, the leatherneck said he nearly completed a lateral move into a computer related military occupational specialty following a serious foot injury. He felt the move would complement his college degree in computer science, but his lack of U. S. citizenship ultimately prevented the job transfer, due to security clearance issues.

"I want to put together an Officer Candidates School package, but I will need a security clearance for that too," explained Kontizas, who extended his tour in Iraq. "Completing (the citizenship) process will also help further my Marine Corps career."

Lance Cpl. Noe Mezarodriguez, administrative clerk, MAG-16, and 20-year-old native of Mexico, said he is also looking forward to becoming a U. S. citizen and a drill instructor.

Like his supervisor Kontizas, Mezarodriguez's citizenship application has been approved and he will take the oath of citizenship after he returns home from Iraq.

"After the Marine Corps, I want to work in law enforcement with either the (U. S.) Border Patrol or the (Los Angeles Police Department)," said Mezarodriguez who hails from Tucson, Ariz. "It means a lot to me to be able to wear (the Marine Corps) uniform and serve this country."

Kontizas and Mezarodriguez said before deploying to Iraq they completed a challenging course at Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar, Calif., to become certified aerial observers, but without their U. S. citizenship, the necessary security clearance proved to be a stumbling block once again.

"Fortunately, after we become citizens we do not have to go through that training again and will be certified aerial observers," said Kontizas.

Before their applications can be finalized, Marines seeking citizenship must complete a step-by-step process involving extensive documentation, a thorough background check, fingerprinting and an interview.

Cpl. Damalie Gathright, personnel clerk, MAG-16, and a native of Jamaica, who was also raised in New York City, said overcoming the citizenship application process has been made easier thanks to legal assistance from her fellow Marines.

"What we do is help the Marine (seeking citizenship) with the application process and work as a liaison with Citizenship and Immigration Services, who ultimately review and approve the applications," said Capt. Kasey C. Shidel, legal assistance officer, Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron 3, 3rd MAW. "Assuming the Marine moves quickly, applications can be completed in as little as six months.

"For deployed Marines, it could take longer, due to the demands of our workload (in Iraq)," said Shidel. "Basically we are here to help them in any way we can and to answer any questions the Marines may have during the process."

As of Oct. 1, the $300 citizenship application fee is waived for all service members on active duty, according to Shidel.

Kontizas, Mezarodriguez and Gathright--who already paid the fee when they began their applications earlier this year-all agreed that the financial cost related to citizenship was irrelevant.

"I don't care about spending money," explained Kontizas. "What I care about is becoming a citizen of the country that I fight for, that I love and I believe in."