Airman 1st Class D’elbrah Assamoi of the Ivory Coast signs her U.S. Certificate of Citizenship on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, after the basic military training graduation ceremony at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

Airman 1st Class D’elbrah Assamoi of the Ivory Coast signs her U.S. Certificate of Citizenship on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, after the basic military training graduation ceremony at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. (Vanessa R. Adame/Air Force)

WASHINGTON – The Air Force has graduated its first group of airmen who became American citizens during basic training as part of an accelerated naturalization process, which the service hopes will help solve recent difficulties in recruiting.

Fourteen foreign-born men and women who joined the Air Force were naturalized during several weeks of basic training this month at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, the service said. They graduated from basic training and signed their U.S. Certificate of Citizenship on Wednesday.

“I will always be grateful for every opportunity I have here in the best country of the world,” said Airman 1st Class Natalia Laziuk, a member of the inaugural group and a native of Russia.

The enhanced process lets foreign-born recruits settle legal citizenship requirements immediately upon entering basic training. During seven and a half weeks, they can supply all the needed paperwork, take the citizenship test and satisfy other requirements to become naturalized Americans by the time that they graduate.

“Their desire to become citizens exemplifies their commitment and dedication to the United States,” said Air Force Col. John O’Dell, commander of the 37th Training Wing at Lackland. “When we began … we asked all trainees who would be interested in starting their application, and 111 raised their hands.”

The Air Force worked with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services earlier this year to arrange the accelerated citizenship program, which shaves off many months from the old process. Previously, if a foreign-born enlistee wanted to speed up their citizenship application, they first had to finish initial training and then six months of continuous active service.

The new initiative is one of many that the Air Force is using to attract qualified candidates during a time of deep recruiting shortages across the military. In recent years, the services have come up short of recruiting targets due to several factors. This year, the Air Force said it expects its total force -- the number of new and existing members – to be short about 10,000 airmen.

Under the program, if a foreign-born enlistee doesn’t complete all the citizenship requirements in basic training, they can get it done later during their first assignment or at technical school. A big part of the process is online, where candidates can begin their application, study for their citizenship test and sit for a virtual naturalization interview.

The Air Force said its first group were natural born citizens from nearly a dozen countries -- Mexico, South Africa, the Philippines, Turkey, El Salvador, Jamaica, Russia, the Ivory Coast, Kenya and Cameroon.

“These trainees volunteered to serve a country they aren’t yet citizens of, and now we get to formally recognize them upon their graduation as American airmen,” O’Dell said.

“I am dedicating myself to my country,” said Airman Miguel Angelo Flores, a native of the Philippines and new American citizen.

The Navy implemented its accelerated citizenship process for its recruits in March 2022 and the Army followed last fall.

Accelerated citizenship is one of numerous efforts across the military to expand what’s become a limited candidate pool. According to recent Pentagon data, only 23% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 qualify for military service academically and physically.

Some of the other incentives that the Army has adopted, for example, include promotions for enlistee referrals, a new recruiting ribbon and choice of station right out of basic training.

The Air Force is offering tens of thousands of dollars in enlistment bonuses to attract new members – especially for certain specialty positions, such as pilots.

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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