It has been a decade since U.S. armed forces—with the United Kingdom and the Afghan Northern Alliance—launched what has become America’s longest war, Operation Enduring Freedom, in Afghanistan. And, in addition to recognizing the heroism of those who work to keep America safe, it is worth praising the contributions of an often overlooked group: America’s non-citizen soldiers.
Since 9/11, more than 70,000 immigrants have become U.S. citizens while serving. One of them is Sergeant First Class Ramel Turic. A refugee from Bosnia’s civil war, Turic immigrated to America in his teens, joined the Army, and served three combat tours (one in Afghanistan and two in Iraq).
In 2006, after serving America for nearly six years, he became a U.S. citizen. Turic received numerous military awards and decorations. In 2010, he won the Bronze Star, the fourth highest combat award, for “heroic or meritorious achievement or service,” after taking part in every major battle in Afghanistan in which his brigade participated.
Non-citizens have fought for the U.S. in Iraq, too. Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta was a scout team leader who lost his life on a search and destroy mission during Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah in 2004. After being shot, Sgt. Peralta reached out to pull a grenade close to his body, absorbing the blast and shielding his fellow Marines. For his heroism, Peralta was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the military’s second highest award for valor.
The service of non-citizen service members is not without controversy.
Some claim that the U.S. military is involved in a kind of extortion as it dangles fast-track citizenship in front of non-citizens willing to fight on the front lines.
Others worry about the allegiances of non-citizens. As Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, has written, “Until an immigrant fully becomes one of us, how can we expect him to ‘bear true faith and allegiance’ to our Constitution, rather than his own?”
But allowing non-citizens to serve in the military does not imperil America’s greatness. Rather, our greatness depends on them. Without non-citizen soldiers, the military would fail to meet its recruitment goals, especially for specialists.
Most Americans believe, as President George W. Bush put it in a 2006 citizenship ceremony for three soldiers who had been seriously wounded in Iraq, that “if somebody’s willing to risk their lives for our country, they ought to be full participants in our country.”
Or as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Emilio González put it in testimony to Congress in 2006:
The common bond that unites every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine is a commitment to duty, honor, and country. Whether native born, naturalized, or not U.S. citizens at all, service members are unified not by a common heritage, race, religion or creed, but rather by this universal code that builds character, breeds conviction and encourages valor. The code has a way of superseding nationalities. The placement of foreign-born and native Soldiers together within a platoon, on a ship at sea, attached to an air squadron or a fire team, ensures that the only true measure of a fighting man or woman is their steadfast dedication to the mission and reverence for the chain of command. Under fire, all other considerations are irrelevant.
America’s non-citizen soldiers have performed most admirably under fire. More than 20 percent, 716, of the recipients of the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor, have been immigrants, many of them non-citizens. Non-citizen soldiers are likelier than citizen soldiers to complete their initial enlistment, which saves the Pentagon millions of dollars in training costs.
When contemplating America’s non-citizen soldiers, the inevitable question arises: Why do they fight?
The prospect of obtaining U.S. citizenship is surely a factor. In 2002, President Bush issued an executive order eliminating the mandatory three-year waiting period for active duty service members to petition for citizenship. That change, and others implemented since 9/11, makes military service one of the shortest paths to U.S. citizenship.
But most non-citizen soldiers are also motivated by gratitude—by a desire to give back to the country that has given them so much.
Non-citizen soldiers have served in every American war. And, sadly, some have even paid the ultimate price. With the ten year anniversary of our entry into Afghanistan, it is our duty to thank them—and all others—for their service.
Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of Campaign for Working Families. Daniel Allott is senior writer at American Values.