Fofomaitulagi Tulifua Tuitele can rightfully add a number of titles to his sizable full name: American Samoa native; U.S. Marine Corps retiree; decorated Vietnam veteran; retired postal worker; proud grandfather.
On Thursday, he added one more — citizen of the United States.
"I did all these things in my life," the 67-year-old Rio Rancho resident said in an interview at his home earlier this week. "But I decided to put the icing on the cake and get my citizenship."
With his family, friends, fellow Vietnam veterans, Marine brothers and assorted VIPs gathered at the New Mexico Veterans' Memorial, Tuitele proudly took the almost-superfluous oath of allegiance to the United States, thus cementing his long-sought U.S. citizenship.
"Mr. Tuitele, let me be clear on one thing: You may not have been a citizen until today, but you have always been a true example of what it is to be an American," Jesse Mendez with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Albuquerque field office, said as the ceremony began. "Thank you very much for your service."
At Thursday's ceremony, Tuitele said he got "goose bumps" as he entered the hallway of the Veteran's Memorial, which was lined with uniformed students from the nearby Wilson Middle School Leadership Program, standing at attention in his honor.
A patriot's patriot
Tuitele, known by his friends as Fofo and by his Marine buddies at "Master Sgt. T," was born and raised in the village of Vailoa on the island of Savai'i in American Samoa. The village has grown considerably since he left there at age 15; it now has nearly 800 residents.
After his father died unexpectedly when Fofo was 10, he moved with his mother to Hawaii, and spent several years moving back and forth between Hawaii and Samoa, eventually settling down with relatives in California.
When he turned 18, Tuitele joined the Marine Corps, in part because of his fascination with the 1962-67 television series "Combat," which featured a hard-core squad of American soldiers fighting the Germans in France during World War II.
"I wasn't all that interested in going to Vietnam," Tuitele said, but he was intent on serving in the military.
After the Navy, Air Force and Army recruiters told him they couldn't take him for several months, he visited a Marine Corps recruiter. "The Marines, they said they'd take me in a few days," Tuitele said, "so I signed up."
After basic training and infantry school, Tuitele volunteered for Vietnam and spent a relatively calm first tour there.
His second tour — while serving with Lima Co., 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division — was far more memorable.
In August 1968, his squad was tasked with ousting a company of North Vietnamese soldiers from one of the many infamous hills dotting the dense jungles of Vietnam.
Deciding the best approach was to load up with grenades and inch their way up the hillside, Tuitele's squad made good progress until they approached the hilltop, which the found heavily defended by a well-armed, well-entrenched enemy.
When one of his buddies farther up the hill was hit by enemy fire, Tuitele scrambled up the hill through heavy enemy fire to his friend.
"His foot was nearly torn completely off," Tuitele recalled, "I pulled it off, picked him up and headed back down the hill."
The wounded Marine survived, and Tuitele received a Bronze Star medal — the fourth-highest military award for combat — for his heroic actions that day. He later received a Purple Heart for injuries suffered in combat.
Seven years after saving his buddy, Tuitele was involved in the U.S. military's last armed conflict of the Vietnam War — the attempted rescue of the U.S.-flagged container ship SS Mayaguez and its crew.
Tuitele retired from the Marine Corps in 1989, then worked for the U.S. Postal Service, retiring in 2003.
As Thursday's ceremony concluded, Tuitele noted that the early loss of his father and the frequent moves during his childhood had left him feeling as though he didn't have a "real" home — until he joined the Marines.
"For the first time, I belonged to something. Now I had a family," he said.