ARLINGTON, Va.—For Hilbert Caesar, the path to citizenship was long and difficult—from Guyana to the streets of New York at age 11, then to joining the U.S. Army and losing his right leg to an explosive device in Iraq four months ago.
But on Tuesday, Caesar, who has learned quickly to walk with a prosthetic leg, lifted himself out of his seat without a cane to take the Pledge of Allegiance and accept the certificate that showed he was a new citizen.
"I've always felt like an American," said Caesar, 26, his voice trembling with pride and nerves. "I knew I was an American before this day."
Caesar is part of a trend—young immigrants who join the military to get ahead, making sacrifices on the battlefield long before they pledge to defend the Constitution "from all enemies foreign and domestic."
Almost 3 percent of the United States' 1.4 million active-duty military force are non-citizens. Immigration officials said about 16,000 of those have applied for citizenship in the last two years, and about half have completed the process.
On Tuesday, in a nondescript federal office in suburban Arlington, Va., 34 new citizens from 27 countries—from Guatemala to Iraq to Kazakhstan—took the oath, hugged their relatives and sang the national anthem, sometimes in halting English.
Of that group, five were active-duty military, including two from Jamaica, one from El Salvador and one from the Dominican Republic.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do in high school in New Jersey, but I had family in the military and this was a good opportunity for me," said Spc. Reyes Hernandez, 22, who came from El Salvador as a child and served 15 months in Iraq.
For Vonessa Robinson, a 19-year-old Army military police officer from Jamaica, becoming a citizen "just seemed to make sense."
"I thought about it for a long time, and being in the military helps—it's much easier that way," said Robinson, a supply specialist based in Germany who spent eight months in Iraq.
Casear said his path to the military was set when he was a boy in New York City, where he lived with his father: "I always knew I wanted to be a soldier or a policeman."
His vehicle was blown up by a series of explosive devices in Baghdad, Iraq, on April 18. Like other amputees, he has been through a grueling rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
"We help each other," Caesar said of his wounded comrades. "I motivate them and they motivate me."
He said he wants to wants to stay in the Army or become a police officer, and he downplayed his sacrifice.
"I'm a soldier, ma'am," he told one reporter. "This sort of thing happens."
Eduardo Aguirre, the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, who came from Cuba as a boy, said citizenship ceremonies are usually moving and joyful, and he took note of Caesar's example.
"You have already fought to protect the freedoms we cherish and love," Aguirre told him. "I am proud to call you fellow American."
Editors: The following information is suitable for a box to accompany this story.
Active-duty personnel seeking to become citizens go through an easier, faster process because of President Bush's executive order in 2002 and action by Congress.
Noncitizens on active duty can begin the citizenship process as soon as they join the military, instead of waiting three years. The entire process for a member of the military now takes a year or less vs. years for nonmilitary applicants.
Starting Oct. 1, immigrants in the military serving overseas will not have to return to the United States for citizenship interviews. They can be conducted at U.S. embassies around the world.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-CITIZEN