GREAT LAKES — Rear Adm. Stephen C. Evans, commander, Naval Service Training Command (NSTC), made his first visit to a naturalization ceremony at Recruit Training Command (RTC) to watch 18 Sailors become new naturalized American citizens, Jan. 20.
"This day is a day I'm sure you won't forget," said Evans. "It's a day I won't forget and I thank you for allowing me to share it with you. You all come from different backgrounds and different heritages, but you raised your right hand to defend this country. Today this country has returned your commitment as you become new citizens."
Approximately 37,000 recruits graduate from boot camp every year, but not every recruit is a U.S. citizen when they enter the service. Since 2010, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), in partnership with the U.S. Navy and Recruit Training Command (RTC), have expedited citizenship for more than 4,000 recruits during basic training.
"We average between 300 to 500 recruits (and "A" school Sailors) every single year," said Lt. Christopher Jackson, RTC's naturalization officer. "I cannot be more proud to be an American to be able to assist so many people that join the U.S. Navy."
Jackson said the U.S. Navy, as well as the other branches of the military, has had a citizenship program during times of war and conflict, going back to the Korean War.
On July 3, 2002, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13269, which expedited naturalization for aliens and non-citizen nationals serving on an active-duty status in any of the armed forces for one day to become eligible for U.S. citizenship.
"At the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom the naturalization process was being completed in the fleets," said Jackson. "In 2010, we realized we could also do it here at boot camp."
Jackson said this alleviated time and man hours of fleet personnel and also allowed Sailors to become naturalized citizens giving them all the rights, privileges and duties of a birthright citizen earlier in their Navy careers.
Seaman Recruit Andre Beckford, 30, from Ocho Rios, Jamaica, said coming to the United States in 2009 was a very big deal for him.
"Coming in the Navy and getting to become a citizen I had to fight back tears," said Beckford. "I actually felt like I was part of something great today."
For Fireman Jasmine Thapa, 19, from Pokhara, Nepal, the naturalization ceremony was a proud moment that took her six years to accomplish.
"It was very exciting and my heart was beating fast," said Thapa. "I feel very proud to be called an American citizen. I always wanted to come to America and when I got here I looked for ways to serve the United States and found the Navy had the best things for me and now I'm a Sailor and an American."
According to Paul Phillips, immigration services officer for USCIS, to further expedite the citizenship of recruits and Sailors at RTC, he travels from his Chicago field office to Great Lakes every week to process paper work, conduct interviews, do background checks and perform citizenship oath ceremonies.
"We're here every week and we process applications expeditiously through our Nebraska center," he said. "The applicants are normally ready to naturalize Wednesday mornings after a final interview on Monday."
For many of the recruits that usually means they are ready to naturalize the Wednesday morning their final week of boot camp. This is after several weeks of studying on top of accomplishing and successfully passing their boot camp training. They also have to pass the citizenship test and no recruit can be naturalized before passing their final training evolution — Battle Stations, the culmination of eight weeks of training by recruits. Battle Stations is a grueling 12-hour test of a recruit's skills in several shipboard scenarios, including firefighting, combatting flooding and transporting casualties. The final test and evaluation is held on board the 210-foot-long Arleigh Burke-class destroyer replica, USS Trayer, the Navy's largest simulator.
"I'm very proud of this program," said Jackson. "The USCIS field agents really do give the applicants priority to make sure they can get the process done in a reasonable manner."
Jackson said one of the reasons for a delay is background checks may take longer than the eight weeks a recruit is at the Navy's only boot camp.
"This is a huge benefit that the U.S. government bestows on its military service members," said Phillips. "It's not something that is easy to obtain. We've had folks that have tried for years and even decades to get United States citizenship. But these (military) folks have gone the extra mile and have pledged to defend something they're not even an intimate part of yet."
Rear Adm. Evans observed the Sailors recite the Oath of Naturalization and say the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag that was set up in the training room of RTC's USS Yorktown Visitor's Center. He also handed each new citizen their Certificate of Naturalization. Afterward he told the new American citizens to remember where they all came from and remember what you now defend.
"As you move forward and see this land of opportunity you'll also see opportunities in the Navy," said Evans. "I encourage you to reach for the stars and set your goals high."
NSTC oversees 98 percent of initial officer and enlisted accessions training for the Navy, as well as the Navy's Citizenship Development program. NSTC also includes RTC, the Navy's only boot camp also at Naval Station Great Lakes, the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) program at more than 160 colleges and universities, Officer Training Command (OTC) Newport, Rhode Island, and Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) and Navy National Defense Cadet Corps (NDCC) citizenship development programs at more than 600 high schools worldwide.