"I encourage everyone to embrace diversity, celebrate all nationalities, and find commonalities not differences," said Maj. Marisol Chalas immediately after being recognized as part of the Outstanding American by Choice initiative before hundreds of onlookers gathered for the 154th Anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address Program at the Soldier's National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Penn.
This U.S. Army Reserve Soldier, currently serving as an Army Congressional Fellow, joined a select group of more than 130 men and women from a variety of backgrounds and nearly all sectors of society who have been recognized since the initiative began in 2006. The group includes Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, Mariano Rivera, former professional baseball pitcher for the New York Yankees and founder of the Mariano Rivera Foundation, and Indra K. Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo.
"This award is given to naturalized citizens who have achieved in our country extraordinary things," said United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director L. Francis Cissna. "Recognizing Major Chalas shows new citizens that our country continues to recognize them and their achievements. (The Gettysburg battleground) is, as President Lincoln said 154 years ago, hallowed ground. In his speech, he said that the sacrifices made by the men who died here were not in vain and that our republic would endure. By naturalizing these new citizens here today it shows that our country continues to live and breathe. The country continues to grow, and they are a manifestation of that."
Chalas was chosen for the award for a number of reasons. As a part of a distinguished military career currently culminating in her current position, she was also the first female Latina Black Hawk pilot. Chalas also started a leadership lunch and learn program for children at Fort Bragg, took part in the Big Brother Big Sister of America program, and serves on the board of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, a public university in Massachusetts.
Chalas is proud of the service she and fellow immigrants honored by the award have given. "It is a positive impact," said Chalas. "We're such a well-rounded country, made up of so many different nationalities; (Naturalized citizens) help bring us an understanding of each other."
She added that it affects the readiness of the Army Reserve as well, impacting everything from the number of Soldiers serving, to the unique skills sets many immigrants bring such as language skills, to the experiences and work ethic many immigrants bring.
Born and raised in Bani, Dominican Republic, Chalas moved to Lynn, Massachusetts in 1982, joining her parents who arrived in 1980. She received her citizenship in 1994, just prior to receiving her bachelor degree from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, after serving as an Army National Guard Soldier since the summer after her junior year of high school. "I said I am in this country, this is my home now," Chalas said. "I am very proud that I became a citizen, it is the best decision I ever made."
Chalas was hired by General Electric Nuclear Power Systems after graduation, and served enlisted in the California Guard until going to the Georgia National Guard Officer Candidate School in 2001, where she received her commission as an aviation officer. She then went to Fort Rucker, becoming the first Latina female to learn to fly Black Hawk helicopters. She joined the Army Reserve Active Guard Reserve program in 2011.
As a Soldier and immigrant, Chalas is able to offer a unique perspective to her current position as a Congressional Fellow in Rep. Betty McCollum's office (MN D4), providing valuable insight many do not have. It is not something she takes lightly. "It is such an honor to serve in the military," Chalas said. "I've been in 27 years -- that tells you how much I enjoy it. After receiving my commission I participated in a medical exercise in the Dominican Republic, and was able to serve as a translator and help the doctors and nurses. There I was, as an American Soldier flying over the town I was born in -- you cannot find something more rewarding. I love that I can give back to the United States."