By Mrs. Shatara Seymour (Leonard Wood)August 25, 2016
Aug. 18 marked a milestone in the lives of 62 military men and women as they officially became American citizens at Fort Leonard Wood's Naturalization Oath Ceremony.
For the average person seeking American citizenship, it may take years to finally raise their right hands vowing the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America, but for some of these service members the process is accelerated because of their military service.
"Raising your right hand to serve in your adopted homeland's military force at a time of unrest speaks to your high character and determination to be a productive American citizen," said Col. Tracy Lanier, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leonard Wood commander.
A native of Venezuela, Airman 1st Class Santiago Blair, 364th Training Squadron, Detachment 1, had been in the United States for 10 years and said through the military his citizenship was accelerated.
"This is the land of opportunities," Blair said. "I wanted to serve the country (in the military) as a small way for me to give back."
Emotions were high, including smiles, laughter and a few tears.
From the country of China and assigned to Fort Leonard Wood's Center for Seabee and Facility Engineer Detachment, Navy Seaman Yao Wang said, "It doesn't feel real, and I'm very excited."
Wang said she really likes it here, including the diversity and culture. "I don't feel like a foreigner here, and I want to bring my parents,"she said.
Blair expressed similar sentiment.
"(This is) a great day -- an amazing feeling," Blair said. "I really like the United States, and I really feel like an American now."
Spc. Kriti Bhayani, 169th Engineer Battalion, came to the Army by way of the MAVNI program, which is Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest -- a recruiting program that allows legal non-citizens with in-demand skills to join the Army in exchange for expedited U.S. citizenship.
Bhayani came to America for a master's degree program in petroleum engineering and found the MAVNI program through a recruiter by way of a friend.
She said it feels great to be an American citizen and to complete her Army training. "It was not easy," said Bhayani, speaking of her Army training. "It was physically difficult, but I made it."
"I'm physically and mentally stronger and more disciplined," she said.
Bhayani said the Army is her second Family, and this was a great experience to build camaraderie in each other through this process.
"(We should be a) citizen in the nation that (we) serve, so that we have the true faith and allegiance -- for the love of the country," Bhayani said.
"Now we all have a new name -- 'fellow American citizen,'" Wang said.