A Fourth of July to remember

  • Published
  • By Capt. Douglas J. Pietersma
  • Strategic Operations Center watch officer
To most Americans, the Fourth of July is a day of celebration, a day of rest and a chance to spend time with family. For deployed military members who are separated from their families, it is pretty much just like every other day. Though there are some special decorations at the dining facility and a few other events to enjoy, the work schedule is the same because the mission must go on. This year was no exception.

But for hundreds of my fellow servicemembers, this Fourth of July was extremely special, as they swore the Oath of Citizenship to become the citizens of the U.S. Ironically, they didn't do this standing on the soil of their new country, but rather in the center of one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces. A place that was built for the pleasure of a dictator now hosted the naturalization ceremony of some of America's finest.

There was quite a build up to the event as I saw the press platform, curtains, chairs and lectern being set up in the days leading up to the ceremony. The centerpiece of these preparations was a U.S. flag that stretched from the third floor of the palace to just above the floor of the rotunda. Nothing stirs patriotic emotion like a three story symbol of freedom. I'm sure Saddam Hussein never envisioned such a display of American patriotism would ever be in this place.
On the morning of the ceremony, there were more people around the palace and everybody knew that a special visitor had arrived for naturalization ceremony. The soon-to-be citizens would have the Vice-President of the U.S. as speaker at their naturalization ceremony.

I arrived at the rotunda one hour and 15 minutes before the ceremony began and found almost no place to stand. The main floor of the rotunda was reserved for those who were becoming citizens and other special guests. As I searched the second floor, all of the arches looking down into the rotunda were full. Finally I found a vantage point looking over the shoulders of other servicemembers from the third floor of the palace.

Before the ceremony began, the military band played several military marches. It was a small band, but the sound echoed off the walls of the palace and made the band sound as if it were much larger.

Army General Ray Odierno, Multi-National Force-Iraq commander, spoke just before the servicemembers took the Oath of Citizenship. He referenced an inscription on the Statue of Liberty, which called to the "tired, poor and huddled masses." However, General Odierno said that it would be more appropriate to describe the newest citizens in front of him as "the best, the brightest and the bravest." His words were poignant and drew applause from the onlookers.
Two-hundred thirty-seven servicemembers took to their feet as the Oath of Citizenship was administered. As they raised their right hands and spoke in unison, I detected a peculiar vocal inflection. Their voices were noticeably louder during certain points of the oath. Specifically, when they said, "So help me God" at the end and when they promised to, "support and defend the constitution of the U.S., against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

Not only had these individuals made this commitment before when they enlisted in their respective services, but they had also put those words into action by serving a nation, not yet their own, in a time of war.

Vice President Joe Biden also spoke after the oath of office was administered. His remarks focused on the diversity and commitment of the U.S. and it's people

After the vice-president spoke, the new citizens proceeded to the front to receive their naturalization certificate, a coin from the commanding general and a folded U.S. flag. Nobody could put a value on the smiles that I saw, and their pride in the U.S. was evident as they each clung to a perfectly folded flag.

These servicemembers represented all branches of military service and became U.S. citizens in front of my eyes. They hailed from fifty-nine different countries but now they each called the U.S. their home.

These warriors, through their effort and service, attained something that most Americans don't think twice about: their citizenship. For those of us born with U.S. citizenship, we should be honored by the fact that these individuals sacrificed to attain that which is given to many at birth.

These individuals served before they were citizens. When these newest U.S. citizens return home from their current deployment, they will set foot on U.S. soil for the first time as citizens.

There was no sadness or disappointment that day. Despite the sunless sky, blanketed by the thick clouds of a dust storm, nothing could take away the joy on the faces of the servicemembers who held their naturalization certificates and U.S. flags with pride. This is a Fourth of July that will never be forgotten.