Pfc. James Dada joined the Army last year because the military needed soldiers who could speak Arabic and because he wanted to give back to a country that opened itself to him.
Dada had lived in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon since fleeing Sudan during the country’s 22-year civil war. When his application to resettle in the United States as a refugee was granted in 2003, he felt his long quest for a new home had finally come to an end.
“The United States helped me from the time I got in trouble and had to leave Sudan,” he said Friday. “How could I not repay this country?”
The 30-year-old Bremerton native joined the Army Reserve last year and expects to deploy in a several months to Iraq. And on Friday, Dada and 30 others took the oath of office during a naturalization ceremony at North Fort Lewis for military members and their spouses.
The newest Americans represented members of the Army, Air Force and Navy from 23 countries. They assembled at the American Lake Community Center, where they listened to a keynote address from the acting commander of Fort Lewis, swore an oat of allegiance, watched a congratulatory video from President Barack Obama and later shared a sheet cake decorated as an American flag.
Military service is open to legal residents of the United States. President George W. Bush signed an executive order in 2002 expediting the naturalization of noncitizens in the military serving on active-duty status during wartime.
“You and your families demonstrate, with your service, remarkable self-sacrifice to your adopted country,” Brig. Gen. Jeff Mathis told a crowd of about 100 people in attendance. “Even before you secured the rights associated with American citizenship, you chose to defend our country and answered a call for a cause greater than yourself.”
Each new citizen’s story of arriving in the United States was as varied as their origins, which include countries in Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific islands.
Spc. Genti Sulaj first arrived in the United States from Albania “on Dec. 28, 1997, at 4:30 in the afternoon,” he said.
“Those are details that you do not forget,” he added.
Sulaj, now 29 and living on post, came to the United States to attend high school Arimo, Idaho. He moved to Ohio and worked for several years after graduation. He later attended Ohio University and joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. But he couldn’t receive a commission because he was an American citizen.
He has his application for Officer Candidate School already filled out, but he first will likely deploy to Kuwait in January with the 62nd Company, 23rd Chemical Battalion.
He held his citizenship certificate and posed for photos after the ceremony with another member of his company, Brazil-born Spc. Janaina Heroman.
The 32-year-old chemical specialist first met her husband, an American citizen, when the two worked on a cruise ship. She moved to the United States with him six years ago, and she joined the Army about 1½ years ago.
“It’s an honor,” she said. “It’s a privilege. And this is just awesome.”
Airman Recruit Danni Wu moved to San Francisco from China two years ago. The 22-year-old Wu, who works as a mechanic on EA-6B Prowler aircraft at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, joined the Navy because it offered a chance at an education, good benefits, a chance to see the world – and a fast-track for naturalization.
“I’m so, so proud today,” she said. “I’m so proud to be a U.S. citizen.”