There was an unusual aspect to the naturalization ceremony that took place yesterday at Fort McHenry: All but one of the 14 people sworn in as U.S. citizens are in the military, and several have already served in Iraq.
"This was perfect - I wouldn't change a thing," said Sgt. Jose Figueira, a member of the Army National Guard's 729th Brigade Support Battalion, who served 15 months in Iraq. Figueira, 31, a Dundalk resident and a native of the Portuguese island of Madeira, moved to the United States with his family in 1977, when he was 14 months old. While his three siblings long ago became U.S. citizens, Figueira only just got around to it yesterday.
"I'm the procrastinator in the family," he said, smiling ear-to-ear after the ceremony as his 3-year-old son, Jordan, jumped into his arms for a hug and his wife, Stephanie, looked on. "I'm the last one to join the bandwagon."
More seriously, Figueira said that, as a self-imposed test, he had chosen to go into active duty in Iraq before becoming a citizen. "I wanted to save this for after my deployment," said Figueira, whose company returned to the U.S. in August last year. "It was my way of proving myself."
Figueira and his fellow inductees, wearing uniforms from almost every branch of the services, began gathering at the historic South Baltimore fort early in preparation for the 10 a.m. ceremony, posing for pictures with the fort as a backdrop.
Once the ceremony began, they took the Oath of Allegiance and helped raise a 23-foot-by-42-foot replica of the flag- with 15 stars and 15 stripes - that flew over the fort during the Battle of Baltimore on Sept. 14, 1814, and inspired Francis Scott Key to write what became the national anthem.
Emilio Gonzalez, the Cuba-born director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, who is an Army veteran, told the gathering that more than 45,000 citizens of other countries currently serve as U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen and marines around the world, and that hundreds of thousands of immigrants have served under the Stars and Stripes throughout history.
"Starting at Lexington and Concord, from the fields of Gettysburg, to the Argonne Forest, on the beachheads of Normandy, Iwo Jima, and Inchon, through the streets of Hue and along sandy alleyways in Fallujah, heroes were born from men who came to the United States not as mercenaries, but as migrants," Gonzalez said.
"Irishmen, Colombians, Nigerians and Koreans who fought courageously alongside Texans, Californians, New Yorkers and Nebraskans are buried together in our national cemetery at Arlington, and each is equally regarded as Americans in memoriam," he said.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 104 service members killed in action have become citizens posthumously, according to USCIS figures. Gonzalez honored them as well as those standing before him.
"You patriots came to this country, like millions of others from all around the world, simply seeking the chance for a better life," he said. "You didn't come here to fight, you came here to be free. But through your service, you not only prove your courage, but also your respect and love for your adopted nation."
Those swearing allegiance to their new country yesterday came not only from Portugal, as in Figueira's case, but from the Philippines, Cameroon, Somalia, India, Germany, Panama, the Czech Republic, Mexico and St. Lucia.
"It's an awesome experience," said Marine Lance Cpl. Chingo Derrick, who came to the U.S. in 2004 from Cameroon and enlisted six months later. A resident of Hyattsville who is based at the Washington Navy Yard, he has not been sent to Iraq but said it could happen.
Becoming a citizen was not preordained when he came to the States, Derrick said: "It's something that happened after I got here. You found out, as you explored all the opportunities, that you couldn't do everything. I wanted to work for Homeland Security, but they didn't let me."
Now, said Derrick, whose family remains in Cameroon, he will be able to bring his relatives here "for a visit, at least."
Daina Aldred, 21, a specialist in the Army who was born in Jamaica and moved to the U.S. in 1996, also saw great advantages to becoming a citizen, not the least of which was the chance "to be part of this great nation."
"It's my home now," said Aldred, who is based at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County. "I'm serving so I may as well get the full benefits of serving this country."
Army Sgt. Ayan Mohamed, 26, who left Somalia as a refugee in 1999 and spent nine years in Egypt trying to get to the U.S., was among the first to arrive yesterday, along with her mother and sister. A member of a security unit at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Mohamed said she had always wanted to become an American citizen and would have done so even if she had not joined the military, which she did in November 2003. She has not been sent to Iraq.
Now living in Silver Spring, Mohamed said that when she enlisted she was emulating her father, who had been in the Somali army and is now living in exile in Kenya.
Becoming a citizen, Mohamed said, marks a completion of sorts, "like the end to a struggle."
For Zdenek Fronek, 32, a machinery technician 3rd class in the Coast Guard, the journey 12 years ago from his native town of Kladno in the Czech Republic to U.S. citizenship "wasn't planned," he said.
"When I moved here I was a student," recalled Fronek, who signed up as a reservist in the Coast Guard about a year ago and was posted to USCG Station Annapolis. At that point, he said, citizenship began to make sense.
"I pay taxes here, but up to now I couldn't vote," he said. "And it's very important for me to vote."