BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Marines and Soldiers stood alone and in groups, like nervous fathers waiting for their first child. Some paced, some stood talking - anything to pass the time before their long journey came to an end.
They came from as far away as Haiti, Mexico and Brazil, as well as a few who were even returning to their homeland of Iraq.
Two First Marine Expeditionary Force Marines and 32 Soldiers, swore in as United States citizens in the Al Faw Palace here Oct. 3. The ceremony was the first of its kind held in Iraq, and was the prototype for many to come.
"There are more than 45,000 service members in the United States military who are pursuing their U.S. citizenship," said keynote speaker, the Honorable Eduardo Aquirre, Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, U. S. Department of Homeland Security, following remarks by Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, commanding general, Multi-National Corps, Iraq. "Some of (the servicemembers) here have waited years for this moment. I would like to see the rest attain their citizenship as well."
The ceremony, held in the rotunda of the palace, was witnessed by hundreds who lined the walls on each of its three levels, including servicemembers from around the world and some of the top American officers in Iraq.
"I am just glad to finally be here," said Sgt. Demetrios Kontizas, administrative chief, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, who was told just a few weeks prior to the ceremony that his citizenship paperwork wasn't ready and that he wasn't going to be able take part in the ceremony.
Kontizas, who was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and grew up in Queens, N.Y., first applied several years ago, but because he was in the Marine Corps, his paperwork couldn't keep pace with his change of duty assignments. He reapplied in San Diego, but missed an appointment with the naturalization office, when he received orders to deploy to Iraq in February.
"I didn't think it was going to happen," said the sergeant, whose dream of becoming a Marine officer was hindered due to a requirement for American citizenship. "I felt betrayed. It had been more than two years, and now I was being (denied) with no way to fix it."
"This is the type of issue that occurs with applications from military members," said Leigh Colitre, immigration officer, Athens District Office, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "We lose them for years, and only find them again when they reapply for citizenship. It is hoped that the (proposed) amendment will alleviate this type of issue, and expedite the process for military members."
Motivated by the Marine who attained the rank of sergeant meritoriously, in addition to being named Noncommissioned of the Quarter while here in Iraq, members of Kontizas' command and I MEF representatives looked into the issue. The once arrested process stirred into motion.
"The first thing I will do when I get back to Al Asad is complete my officer's package," remarked the Brazilian Marine with an infectious smile.
Unfortunately, more than half a dozen I MEF Marines on the list, and dozens of Soldiers, did not take part in the ceremony, due to operational commitments, redeployment out of country and other issues. However, according to Virginia T. Palomares, immigration officer, Rome District Office, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, who traveled with Colitre to Baghdad specifically to interview and complete the naturalization process for the military members, the Oct. 3 ceremony was only the beginning.
Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services personnel plan to repeat this process as often as possible, in essence, taking the process to the military members who are serving the country.
Prior to their trip to Baghdad, the lion's share of the arduous paperwork process for the candidates was completed.
"Specific procedures, including background checks were completed to ensure that we are connecting the correct benefit to the correct person," said Palomares. "We don't want anyone to show up just to find out they were ineligible."
The "candidates" arrived alone and in groups over the days preceding the ceremony, to complete the interview process and take their citizenship test.
"I was really nervous," said Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Cardale Harrison a personnel chief with the 308th Transportation Company, who grew up in Lincoln, Neb., after coming to America from Thailand.
However, as each applicant completed the process and took their citizenship test, there was a marked change in their demeanor.
"The officers kept the setting relaxed, but professional, so it was easier than I thought it would be," said Harrison, who didn't learn he wasn't an American citizen until a few years ago.
Following several days of practice, the ceremony may have at first seemed anti-climactic.
Differing from many citizenship ceremonies in America, there was no one draped in the U. S. flag. No crying or outward displays drew attention to individuals.
In fact, the rotunda was absolutely silent for a few seconds following the final words of the oath, uttered in one voice by the candidates. However, as applause filled the palace that was once the vacation home of a dictator, as one, the Marines and Soldiers stood taller and their chests swelled with pride. One could even spy smiles sneaking onto the serious faces.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Australian Army Cpl. Gavin Walker, a coalition member who made friends with several of the candidates.
"I feel kind of weird," said Lance Cpl. Jose M. Fonseca, Bravo Co., 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, whose tour in Iraq ends soon. "In a matter of days I'll go back to the States, and I'll be a citizen."
Fonseca, whose family immigrated to America when he was a toddler in 1983, says he grew up in San Diego with "all the Marines and Sailors," so joining the Marine Corps was "just in the cards."
As the rotunda emptied, following the ceremony, one soldier, formerly of Iraq, looked around the room. The gravity of the moment took on a whole new meaning when, clutching his tiny American flag, he turned to another soldier and said, "I never thought I would be standing here to become an American."
Note: The names of the Soldier whose came from Iraq have been kept out of the story in the interest of security. Information for military members seeking U.S. citizenship is available online at: http://uscis.gov/graphics/services/natz/MilitaryBrochurev7.htm.