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Vietnam veteran to finally get a chance at citizenship

By MICHAEL MATZA | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: April 30, 2015

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Born in Poland in 1941, Erhard Wensel was 11 when he and his family became legal residents of the United States.

Drafted by the Army in 1967, he spent a year in Vietnam as a cook with the Fourth Infantry Division, and earned a citation for "meritorious service in support of allied counterinsurgency operations."

One day, he fell into conversation with a lieutenant who knew he had a green card but not citizenship.

"Do you want to be a citizen?" the officer asked.

"I do," said Wensel, "but I ship out in three weeks."

"I'll get some papers. I'll take care of this," said the officer, "and you will hear about it" stateside.

But Wensel heard nothing, not that year, not ever, he said Wednesday in Philadelphia, flanked by his immigration lawyer ahead of a bid Thursday to finally become a citizen of the country he served so honorably so long ago.

"He's a vet, and he's entitled," said the lawyer, Elizabeth Ricci, who will accompany Wensel to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in West Philadelphia. There, he will present his naturalization petition and must answer at least six of 10 questions about U.S. history and government correctly to qualify.

"Mr. Wensel is as American as anyone else," said Ricci, a Tallahassee, Fla., lawyer who is representing him free and flew to Philadelphia to be by his side.

"Tomorrow is his big day," she said.

Ricci developed a reputation as the go-to lawyer for veterans in similar straits after she handled the case of Mario Hernandez, an Army veteran in Florida who came to America as a Cuban refugee in 1965 and lived for nearly a half-century in the belief that he was a citizen when he was not.

After a series of legal ups and downs, said Ricci, Hernandez finally won his case for citizenship last year.

So far, Ricci said, she has handled five similar cases, all on a pro bono basis.

"My fear is there are other people out there," she said. "If I, in little Tallahassee, had five, it's got to be at least several hundred" nationwide.

About 5,000 green-card holders annually obtain U.S. citizenship on an expedited basis through military service. Most petitions are approved expeditiously.

Wensel, of Boyertown, Berks County, is a retired manufacturer of butcher-block tabletops and a man of few words. But his eyes get misty, and his Adam's apple jumps, when he is asked about his quest for citizenship.

A few years ago, he said, he looked into applying but was told by a staffer in a federal government official's office that the application would cost $680, money he didn't have at the time.

That turned out to be wrong, because the fee for veterans is waived.

Wensel was aided in his quest by his friend and fellow Fourth Division vet, Ed Goehring, 68, who heard about Ricci's success in other cases and contacted her in December on Wensel's behalf.

On Thursday, when Wensel goes before an immigration officer for his civics test, his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and two young granddaughters will be waiting in the lobby.

With any luck, he said, the next thing they will witness is him, with his right hand in the air, taking the oath of citizenship.

mmatza@phillynews.com

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