Drill sergeants help pave path to citizenship
August 23, 2011
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FORT JACKSON, S.C., Aug. 23, 2011 -- Soldiers come into the Army from all over the United States. They arrive at training posts from Maryland to California, and from Wisconsin to Texas. Some Soldiers, though, have traveled much farther.
Soldiers serving in the U.S. Army also come from Jamaica, Iraq, Afghanistan, Peru, Mexico, Ghana, Nigeria or Colombia. When these Soldiers arrive at basic training, their drill sergeants don't only transform them from citizens to Soldiers, they also transform them from foreign nationals to U.S. citizens.
Helping Soldiers earn their citizenship is very important to 1st Sgt. Victor Benavides, the first sergeant of E Company, 3-34th Infantry Regiment, 165th Infantry Brigade, at Fort Jackson, S.C. The Peru native earned his citizenship only after he was told he couldn't be a Ranger without a security clearance, for which U.S. citizenship was a prerequisite.
"I thought a Soldier was a Soldier," Benavides said.
It took him two and a half years to earn his U.S. citizenship, which he received in 2000.
"If I wanted to be a part of this elite force or high-speed unit, I needed to be a citizen," Benavides said.
Benavides said the Army is doing the right thing by helping recruits earn their citizenship during basic training. But the Army shouldn't be seen as just a quick way for foreign nationals to streamline the naturalization process, Benavides said.
"They know if they don't finish basic or [Advanced Individual Training] then they aren't going to be citizens," Benavides said.
Staff Sgt. Tiera Sprauve, a drill sergeant with the 165th, has the additional duty of helping basic combat trainees earn their citizenship at Fort Jackson.
"Our primary mission as drill sergeants is to train them for the Army, so we're usually focused on that. But, when there's time allotted -- and it can be done -- we need to give that Soldier-in-training an opportunity to study and prepare," Sprauve said. "Sundays are a perfect time to do that, because it's their personal time."
The process toward citizenship is similar to that for Soldiers who have to go through security investigations in that those Soldiers need to be taken to various appointments but still receive all required training, Sprauve said.
Sgt. 1st Class Scott Wilkie, the training room NCO for the 165th, helps basic combat trainee Soldiers locate their paperwork and ensures they get to their appointments on time.
"Getting their citizenship is important because the United States is so wonderful [to them]. So they try harder and push themselves to the extreme," Wilkie said.
Wilkie said that during Red Phase, the first part of basic training, the command helps the Soldiers-in-training prepare all paperwork necessary for their naturalization process. By doing the paperwork in the first two weeks of training, Wilkie said the command ensures that they have everything they need to take their citizenship oath at the end of their basic training cycle.
"My first sergeant came to the military without his citizenship, and it's really dear to his heart to make sure that all the Soldiers get their citizenship," Wilkie said. "It means a lot to him."
At the end of the process, Wilkie takes Soldiers to their citizenship exam. The command prearranges a time during the training schedule to keep Soldiers from missing training.
Staff Sgt. Stephenson Robb, a drill sergeant with the 165th, said Soldiers come from all over the world to serve in the U.S. Army. And, the path to citizenship has improved dramatically since 2004.
"It's kind of an injustice for a Soldier to come in for three years, like they used to have to do, and possibly go into combat and die, yet never receive their citizenship," Robb said. "If they volunteer to join our all-volunteer force, they should be given citizenship prior to even stepping into combat."
"I remember being in Iraq once and about 500 [American] Soldiers were applying for their citizenship at once," Robb said. "They hit their three-year mark, and it was amazing that someone who wasn't even an American citizen would be willing to come to Iraq to fight for a country that's not their own, knowing that they might never be able to obtain their own citizenship, because it's always that what-if factor when you get on that airplane."
Sgt. 1st Class Kimberlyn Burns, a drill sergeant with the 165th, said Soldiers-in-training who are striving to earn their citizenship work that much harder.
"A lot of them have potential because they actually know what they want -- they know what their goal is and why they want to complete basic training," Burns said. "Some of the other Soldiers come in because it's just something to do or just a job. Their focus is completely different than some of the other Soldiers who are just coming in."
Spc. Amir Madlul, a Soldier-in-training at Fort Jackson, arrived in the United States from Iraq on Oct. 22, 2009. Madlul joined the U.S. Army because he wanted to work in military intelligence. Because he needs a security clearance to be a 35W, he is a machinist in the meantime.
"I worked for special forces when I was in Iraq near Baghdad International Airport, training Iraqi special forces, and I liked it," Madlul said. "Those four years, I was with infantry units, I've seen it and how it is."
Pvt. Kimroy McPherson, also a Soldier-in-training with the 165th, arrived in the United States in October 2009 from Jamaica. He said he and other foreign nationals in the company would get together in the field when they had down time as well as on Sundays to study for the test. While studying for the test is important, McPherson said training to be a Soldier is just as important, as the citizenship earned during basic training is contingent on one being a Soldier and fulfilling one's commitment to the Army.
"Even if you pass and get your citizenship, if you can't pass your PT test or the requirements here to pass basic training, you won't get your citizenship, even if you pass the test," McPherson said. "It's important to prepare for the test and study for the test, but it's also important to do the requirements you need to do to graduate basic."