REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- For two new members of the Redstone family, Independence Day held special meaning this year. It was the first one they could celebrate as American citizens.

Spc. Zeeshan Qadir and Spc. Nesredin Ali, both students in advanced individual training at Toftoy Hall, became United States citizens June 21. They celebrated with a small party and cake, but the real celebration would begin July 4.

Ali, a native of Ethiopia, and Qadir, who hails from Pakistan, arrived at Redstone nine months ago to train as specialists in the Missile Systems Training Department. Qadir has lived in the United States for nine years, and has a wife and daughter in Arizona. Ali has been here a little over one year.

Joining the Army enabled both men to expedite the naturalization process, which usually takes five years. Qadir said he joined the Army not only for that, but also to "serve his country and gain practical experience in his degree field of electronics." He said most of his knowledge about the U.S. military was based on movies, so real Army life was different than what he expected.

"It's been very challenging and physically demanding," he said. "I never knew I could run that much without passing out."

Ali said he joined the Army for the "free knowledge" -- educational opportunities that would supplement his degree in physics. So far, he has enjoyed the advanced technology, the Army way of life, and the "nice people" he has met in Alabama.

Like millions of immigrants before them, both men said they came to America for the opportunities that life here would give them. They agreed that life here was both better and different than what they expected. American food was the biggest culture shock.

"I remember going to Wendy's for the first time, and not knowing what a hamburger was. I asked the lady, does it have ham in it, because I cannot eat ham," Qadir, who is Muslim, said laughing.

Both Qadir and Ali, who practice their Muslim faith privately, said American open-mindedness and acceptance of their religion has been a plus.

"What I like most are the principles on which this country was founded. We are free to practice any religion. Democracy like this was never allowed to flourish in Pakistan," Qadir said.

After their training at Redstone, both men will be assigned to Germany. They said they are excited, but look forward to returning to their new homeland.

"Life is better here. I miss my family, but I like it better here," said Ali, in somewhat still-broken English.

Staff Sgt. John Santos, instructor/squad leader, said they will be missed.

"These two -- not only are they physically strong and fast -- they are smart Soldiers," Santos said. "They are the type I would like to have not only in the operational Army, but as my leaders, as well."