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SOLDIER FIRST, CITIZEN LATER: Immigrants win citizenship during military service

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Silvano Carcamo's decades-long journey from Honduras to American citizenship ended in this country's most auspicious landmark: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

On this past Independence Day, he and two dozen other military service members became U.S. citizens in a White House ceremony overseen by President Barack Obama.

“It's like, who would've thought somebody who came from that background would be a guest at the White House?” said Spc. Carcamo, who serves in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum. “There's a lot of people that come here and get their citizenship, but to get it in the White House is extra special.”

Born in the small town of La Lima as one of nine children of a banana plantation laborer, Spc. Carcamo came to the U.S. in 1996 on a student visa. But 13 years later he was laid off from a paper mill so he enlisted in the Army and became a combat medic. Sent to some of the most dangerous regions of Afghanistan, he helped defend a country he was not yet a citizen of.

Today Spc. Carcamo, 35, is one of a growing number of immigrants who became soldiers first, citizens later and will one day be saluted by their communities as U.S. military veterans.

Since September 2001, some 75,000 foreign-born nationals, serving in all branches of the military, have been made American citizens, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Richard W. Bessette, an immigration services officer with the agency in Syracuse office, comes to Fort Drum to conduct about 12 immigration interviews per month for soldiers and dependents.

For many service members, the process to complete paperwork and a background check can take as little as a few months. Getting to the final interview, applicants have to prove they are competent in English, and correctly answer 6 out of 10 questions involving U.S. history, geography and government.

While soldiers may have different motivations for becoming citizens, Mr. Bessette said they generally have a similar reaction when they find out their application has been approved.

“The look on their face... it never gets old,” Mr. Bessette said.

Mr. Bessette said working with applicants has made him appreciate his own citizenship more.

“When you're born a citizen, you take things for granted,” Mr. Bessette said. “You don't realize the benefits you have.

THE 16-YEAR WAIT

Spc. Carcamo initially lived in Springfield, Ohio, with his sister, and said he was working 70-hour weeks in a mall as a cleaner, kitchen assistant and cook at a Chinese restaurant. He added stints as a plumber, welder and goldsmith.

“I worked all the time,” Spc. Carcamo said.

He eventually met his future wife, Kristine, who worked as a manager of the mall's Limited Too store. She invited him to church, they started dating in 1998, and married the following year.

He then got a job at a Honda factory. Three years later to took a job at an Urbana paper mill in 2001. But he was out of work in 2009 when the plant was closed in a buyout. He joined the Army months later.

Spc. Carcamo decided to pursue the combat medic role on the advice of his brother, a doctor who practices in Honduras, who noted, “There's always going to be sick people, there's always going to be hospitals.”

With Fort Drum as his first duty assignment, he was sent to Afghanistan in April 2011, as the brigade took on insurgent forces in the southern part of the country, near the border with Pakistan.

Spc. Carcamo said his service was a way to leave a legacy for his son, Ian, 5.

“I wanted my son to be proud ... that even though I wasn't a U.S. citizen, I wasn't born in this country ... I wanted him to have that pride, to say 'My dad fought for this country,'” he said.

During that time he received an Army Achievement Medal and a Navy Achievement Medal.

While in Afghanistan, Spc. Carcamo began preparing immigration paperwork and sent it to the Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Nebraska.

He returned to Fort Drum in April 2012, and a month later he received a call from the department. Completing an interview on post in June, Spc. Carcamo was told there was an opening for a citizenship ceremony in mid-July. Then he got the call: He had been invited to take part in a ceremony at the White House.

There was little time to celebrate. He didn't own a dress blue uniform so he had to order one and have it tailored. He drove 16 hours, first to pick up his family in Ohio and then to Washington, D.C.

The day of the ceremony, he said the nerves built over the past few days were relieved during a briefing before the event by White House staffers. During the briefing, Spc. Carcamo said the President slipped in to introduce himself and lighten the mood with a few jokes.

“Come on guys, ... it's just me. I'm just a guest here,” he recalled President Obama joking.

Spc. Carcamo said he remembered most the president's focus on describing America as a nation of immigrants and the impact they had on shaping America's history.

“Immigrants and their descendants helped pioneer new industries and fuel our Information Age, from Google to the iPhone,” President Obama said during the ceremony, according to a White House transcript. “So the story of immigrants in America isn't a story of 'them,' it's a story of 'us.' It's who we are. And now, all of you get to write the next chapter.”

The other Fort Drum soldier who became an American citizen at the ceremony was Faye Ubad Ngirchomlei, an automated logistic specialist with the 511 Military Police Company, originally from Palau.

Spc. Carcamo said that when he retires from the Army he plans to return to school to become a physician's assistant.

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