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When Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Vihn transferred to Naples, Italy, two years ago, he left his family in California. Not that he wanted to.

“My wife and two kids were living out of suitcases,” said Vihn, whose wife of five years, Vicky, was not yet a U.S. citizen.

“I went through all the headaches for my case,” he said, after going through the process of gaining citizenship for his wife.

“I cannot say it’s that way for everyone.”

Vihn, of the Fleet Air Mediterranean staff, was reunited with his family 14 months later after a congresswoman helped Vicky become a naturalized U.S. citizen, which allowed her to obtain a passport.

The naturalization issue received new attention this spring after the wife of Cmdr. Ron Horton, the executive officer of the USS Abraham Lincoln, was ruled ineligible for U.S. citizenship because Horton’s overseas tour interrupted his wife’s U.S. residency requirement.

Between 1991-2002, nearly 31,000 foreign-born military dependents became U.S. citizens through naturalization, according to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Foreign spouses who become U.S. citizens are eligible for protection and benefits under U.S. law.

Vihn married Vicky in 1996 while he was stationed in Japan. The couple moved to Guam in 1998. Vicky was allowed to live in both places by using work permits.

But when Vihn was ordered to move to Naples in August 2001, Vicky couldn’t go because she did not have a passport.

Vicky, who holds a U.S. green card, moved to California to stay with relatives. Meanwhile, her husband (and all their household goods) went to Naples.

Vinh said he traveled twice to California to meet with immigration officials and Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif. In October, Vicky finally became a U.S. citizen.

Stuart Chapman, Lee’s spokesman, said he could not speak specifically to the Vinh case, but he said the congresswoman advised all servicemembers who plan to travel abroad to do their homework before heading out.

Sometimes, that is easier said than done.

Vinh said he talked to several Navy legal affairs officers to find answers.

“It seemed like they had no training [in naturalization law], no clue at all,” Vihn said. “I don’t blame them, of course. They know things just for military matters.

“I think the Navy definitely needs a Web site and help desk for foreign spouses and active-duty members.”

Lt. William Kuebler of the Naval Legal Service office in London said help is available for servicemembers.

“There’s fingerprinting and a lot of forms,” Kuebler said. “It’s complicated in the sense that there is a lot of steps. The steps are not particularly demanding, but there are a lot of things to get done and in the right order.

“I usually go to the [Office of the Judge Advocate General] Web site where they usually have a series of primers.”

On the Web: Go to www.jag.navy.mil and click on “legal assistance,” then “immigration.” Also look at www.bcis.gov for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Becoming naturalized

To become naturalized, an applicant in general must:

• Be 18 years or older.

• Been legally allowed to live in the United States in accordance with immigration laws.

• Have lived continuously as a lawful resident in the United States for at least five years prior to filing with no single absence from the United States of more than one year; and have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the previous five years; and have resided within a state or district for at least three months.

• Show he or she has been a person of good moral character for the statutory period (typically five years or three years if married to a U.S. citizen or one year for armed forces expedite) prior to filing for naturalization, i.e., no arrests or immoral behavior.

• Be able to read, write, speak and understand basic English (with some exemptions).

• Demonstrate a basic understanding of U.S. history and governments (with some exemptions).

• Take the oath of allegiance.

— Source: Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services

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