My Journey to Afghanistan to Naturalize Members of the U.S. Armed Forces
By Leah Van Wilgen, USCIS Bangkok Field Office Director
I may never be able to truly depict what I felt during this temporary duty assignment to naturalize members of the U.S. armed forces serving in a hostile war zone in Afghanistan, but I know it was a gift to participate and I remain in awe and inspired by the experience.
As a civilian I was never exposed to military life and did not know what to expect. As our plane entered the air space over Afghanistan, I looked out the window and saw the beige landscape of the desert, and the forward operating bases of the coalition forces. Once we landed, I faced a new reality – the walls and ceiling of the first building we entered were riddled with bullet holes.
Welcome to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan
The next day, as I interviewed the soldiers, sailors and Marines, who applied to become U.S. citizens, I found myself mesmerized by their life stories. Many had overcome troubles I would never experience, so much so that I found myself suppressing tears that often welled in my eyes. Among them was the soldier who escaped his home country in Somalia due to violence. Another soldier shared that while he migrated to the United States from Kazakhstan, he was of German ethnicity. During World War II his parents and family were shipped to Siberia, and later migrated to Kazakhstan. Others simply had desires far greater than any I'd ever experienced; including the sailor from the Philippines who stood barely 5 feet tall – she was living her dream of serving in the U.S. Navy and becoming a citizen of the United States.
USCIS Immigration Assistant Traci Picciano, right, watches as a new citizen receives his Certificate of Naturalization from USCIS Bangkok District Director Robert Looney and congratulations from Congressman Darrell Issa, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and Maj. Gen. James L. Terry, 10th Mountain Division commander
Occasionally, as the sirens would go off and the loudspeakers would announce a rocket attack, we would immediately dive for cover and head to the nearest shelter until the "ALL CLEAR" was announced. During these actions, when I might have felt afraid or worried, I was bolstered by the steadfast leadership of those around me.
More Determined to Continue My Mission
As the week progressed and I met more soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, I could not help but notice that these men and women sacrificed more in both their personal and professional life than the average civilian ever will, including, of course, myself.
In the culmination of our work, we naturalized 98 service members from 48 different countries on a rainy Saturday morning in a large reinforced building. An overwhelming feeling of pride and a sense of a job well done came over me as the new citizens walked on stage to receive their naturalization certificates.
After the ceremony, I lingered with the new citizens and their commanders - wanting to soak it all in. While the service members thanked me for traveling to Afghanistan to complete their naturalization, I am the one who continues to feel enormously grateful and owe thanks to each of them for their military service.
Count me among the first to volunteer to return to Kandahar - or any military installation – to help naturalize the men and women of our nation’s armed forces.
(Since October 2004, when the law changed to allow USCIS to conduct naturalizations overseas, USCIS immigration officers have traveled to 23 countries and naturalized more than 9,000 service members, some in combat zones.)