Servicemembers repeat the Oath of Allegiance during a U.S. citizenship naturalization ceremony Thursday on Camp Foster, Okinawa.

Servicemembers repeat the Oath of Allegiance during a U.S. citizenship naturalization ceremony Thursday on Camp Foster, Okinawa. (Fred Zimmerman / S&S)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — While all members of the military are taught to treasure America’s freedom, few may feel the depth of its value like Marine Staff Sgt. Juan Navarro.

After his father was assassinated in Nicaragua, he lived under house arrest for 10 years before escaping to the United States as a teenage political refugee in 1989.

Navarro left his past behind and concentrated on achieving a notion many native-born Americans take for granted: the American Dream. On Thursday, he added one more piece to that dream by earning his American citizenship, along with 17 other servicemembers, at the Camp Foster theater.

“It’s one thing to come over to America when you choose,” Navarro said. “It’s different when you are forced to leave. Ever since I got to America, it’s been great.”

Navarro joined the Marines in 1994 but transfers and government regulations made gaining citizenship time-consuming, he indicated. Changes to the Immigration and Nationality Act and recent executive orders have made it easier for soldiers to become citizens.

Active-duty personnel serving since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or during periods of “military hostilities” may apply for citizenship immediately, bypassing the one-year service requirement. Before 2003, soldiers were required to serve for three years before qualifying for citizenship.

Spouses, children and parents of soldiers who die in combat now are eligible to apply for citizenship within two years of the soldier’s death.

Prospective citizens must demonstrate knowledge of English, the government and national history. They also must establish moral character and take an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

Since servicemembers already must demonstrate most of those requirements for military induction, today’s ceremony may have felt more like a final stamp of approval for Cpl. Wade “Malik” Fisher.

Fisher grew up in South Africa during the last days of apartheid, moving to the United States at 13.

Once at a forum held by the camp commandant, Fisher asked why non-citizen servicemembers don’t receive military funerals and why, after 20 years, they don’t receive full retirement benefits. “Here are people willing to die and defend the country, and they can’t even vote,” he said. Now non-citizen servicemembers killed in action are eligible for expedited posthumous citizenship, in addition to other relaxed requirements. Fisher said he hopes his input helped change the rules.

Fisher said he’s had citizenship in mind ever since arriving in the United States, but it took the raw emotion of 9/11 to put it in perspective for Lance Cpl. Chue Xiong.

“Seeing the towers that day, it really made me mad,” said Xiong, who came to the United States from Thailand at 6. Standing with his citizenship certificate in hand, Xiong indicated some of his initial rage has evolved into a sense of purpose. “Now it’s like everything I’ve done since that day makes sense,” Xiong said.

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