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Forty-four soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan are celebrating this Fourth of July as American citizens for the first time after their naturalization ceremony at Kandahar Air Field.
As the morning sun beat down on the desert base last Friday, hundreds gathered inside the air-conditioned assembly hall for the ceremony. American flags lined the walls, patriotic music played, and smiles were everywhere.
"It's pretty exciting; we actually have 44 candidates from 24 different countries that are going to be naturalized today and become U.S. citizens," said Capt. Benjamin Wendland, one of the ceremony's organizers.
Wendland said there were lots of moving pieces to pull together for the naturalization ceremony, but one component was absolutely essential: the oath of citizenship.
"As soon as that oath is read and they receive their certificates, they are actually U.S. citizens," Wendland said.
Among those preparing to recite the oath was Griselda Murorodarte. The 21-year-old Army specialist was born in Mexico and grew up in California.
She said it's important for her to become a U.S. citizen.
"I do wear the flag on my right shoulder, and I proudly wear it, and now I can proudly say I'm an American citizen," she said.
When Murorodarte was 4, her mother took her and her sister to the U.S. to escape a bad family situation in southern Mexico. She said she owes everything to her mother because of all the sacrifices she made for her to be where she is today.
Murorodarte said she knew that joining the Army would allow her to get her citizenship more quickly, but the access to educational opportunities influenced her more. She's not focused on any of that right now, though.
"Honestly, my mindset at the moment is duty," she said. "Mission comes first, but this is a very special day for me and I'm always going to remember this."
Committing To The Military
Pfc. Shaeyon Klemann was born in Jamaica and moved to the U.S. with her dad when she was 19. She lived in Richmond, Va., for two years and then joined the Army. She said she also joined primarily so she could further her education.
"There's so much to do when you're a citizen, so many benefits," she said. She decided if she could go so far as to join the Army as a permanent resident, "I might as well go to the extreme and be a U.S. citizen."
Like the others at the ceremony, Klemann said it's a major accomplishment to take the oath.
"I'm very honored and very proud. It's been a long way, but it's here today," she said. "I'm very happy — overwhelmed."
Once everyone was inside, Brig. Gen. Kristin French addressed the candidates.
"You each have a unique story to tell about your journey that led you here today," she said. "But you all have one thing in common: You have all chosen not just to live in this country, but to serve this country and become an American citizen while deployed in Afghanistan."
Pius Bannis of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administered the all-important oath. The soldiers and Marines stood and recited it, then the crowd erupted in applause.
Marine Cpl. Carlos Silva, originally from Nicaragua, said his parents brought him to the U.S. when he was a child. He said they are also in the process of getting their citizenship.
"Pretty soon my entire family's going to be U.S. citizens," he said. "I'm happy about that; it's a proud day in my family."
His plans when he returns home from this tour?
"Spend time with family, be proud that I'm a U.S. citizen and hopefully vote in this election," he said.