WASHINGTON—President Bush on Friday visited with dozens of troops recovering from injuries sustained in the conflict in Iraq. He bestowed Purple Hearts on 16 of them.
But in perhaps the most symbolic part of his visit, Bush stood as a witness as two Marines, injured in the war, were granted U.S. citizenship.
"I think the thing that stood out the most to me was seeing two wounded soldiers swear in as citizens of the United States," an emotional Bush told reporters after the visits.
He described the two men, one from Mexico and the other from the Philippines, as "people who had risked their lives for peace and security and freedom." Their names were not immediately released.
Bush said that watching the Marines proclaim their allegiance to the United States was "a very profound moment."
"We've got an amazing country, where so powerful are the values that we believe that people would be willing to risk their own life and become a citizen after being wounded. It's an amazing moment. I was really proud of them," he said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president is not authorized to administer the oath of citizenship and therefore acted as a witness.
Of the 1.4 million active members of the military, 37,401 are foreign nationals, the Pentagon said. And because of an executive order signed by the president last Independence Day, citizenship for those troops is expedited.
"This sends a powerful message to all Americans that these young immigrant heroes have sacrificed their lives for the values we all cherish," said Dan Kane, a spokesman for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the successor agency to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "We hope more and more military personnel will take advantage of the president's order."
Before leaving for Camp David, the president and first lady Laura Bush visited more than 60 wounded soldiers at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
"It's an amazing thing when you see a person wounded, sitting there in a wheelchair or bound up in bandages or these different-looking metal things sticking out of them to hold them together," Bush said. "A young man looks you in the eye and says, `I can't wait to get back to my unit. I hope I'm healed fast enough to get back to Iraq.'"
During peacetime, noncitizen U.S. residents are eligible to apply for citizenship after serving in the military for three years, rather than the standard requirement of five years.
Under last summer's executive order, active duty and honorably discharged troops who fight in the war on terrorism are immediately eligible to apply for citizenship.
Kane said that about 5,500 military personnel have applied. Applications typically take about two months to process but can sometimes take longer.
For some soldiers, expedited citizenship has come only in death. The executive order has led to posthumous citizenship for seven military personnel killed in the war on terrorism, at least three of them in the Iraq war.
Posthumous citizenship, however, does not convey any immigration benefit to next of kin or family members, Kane said.
Naturalization of U.S. residents in the military is being discussed in Congress. A series of proposed bills seeks to speed up the citizenship process for residents in the military or automatically grant citizenship to soldiers who serve or die in the line of duty.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.