Service before citizen

Airman 1st Class Joseph Mwangi, 137th Special Operations Force Support Squadron, became a U.S. citizen, Sept. 13, 2016, in Oklahoma City. His fellow 137th Special Operations Wing Airmen were present at the ceremony to show their support for his once in a lifetime accomplishment. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Kasey Phipps)

Airman 1st Class Joseph Mwangi, 137th Special Operations Force Support Squadron, became a U.S. citizen, Sept. 13, 2016, in Oklahoma City. His fellow 137th Special Operations Wing Airmen were present at the ceremony to show their support for his once in a lifetime accomplishment. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Kasey Phipps)

WILL ROGERS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Okla -- I, and anyone else born as American citizens, will never fully understand the comforts and opportunities that U.S. citizenship can offer. Born into a first world country with the freedoms of an American citizen has perks that are offered in few places, perks many of us cannot fully understand without witnessing or experiencing life outside of our own limited worlds.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a naturalization ceremony near the end of September as a photojournalist for the 137th Special Operations Wing in Oklahoma City. As such, I would serve witness to the moment, post photos on Facebook and be done. But for me, it turned out to be much more - more lasting and more impactful.

One newly sworn in American from the 137th Special Operations Wing who sat in the second to last row of applicants was supported by two full rows of fellow Airmen who nearly drowned out the rest of the room with their cheers.

As military members, we stand alongside immigrants every day, just as I stood beside a diverse group of immigrants that day. But, the particular immigrants I now write of, wear a U.S. Air Force uniform in the Oklahoma Air National Guard. They are the person down the hall or the body next to you in formation.

They chose to fight for Americans as a precursor to being Americans.

That said, they say the Airman's Creed, "I am an American Airman," before being formally recognized by the U.S. government as Americans. It was not their nation's call that they answered. It was our country's.

Since Oct. 1, 2001, not even a full month after the September 11th attacks, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has naturalized 109,321 members of the military, with 11,609 of those service men and women becoming citizens in naturalization ceremonies in 34 foreign countries, including Afghanistan, Bahrain, China, Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, Iraq, and Kuwait, according to the USCIS website.

In that room, I watched mothers and fathers hold their small children while they recited the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time as citizens of the United States. I felt the flood of relief and pride wash away their nervousness. Above all, I realized what they did in those moments not only opened doors for them, but also meant the naïve and wiggling babies in their arms would grow and have the opportunity to flourish as citizens of a country of hope. Because that's exactly what they see in the U.S. - hope.

That is my lasting impression.

In a country seemingly overwhelmed by violence, race, health care, bathrooms and party politics, there is still hope. People outside of our country can still see us as the beacon of light across the sea, the shining city on the hill. So much so, that people are willing to fight for a country that they have yet to officially belong and in some circumstances, be accepted.

When the ceremony ended and the Q and A began, the first question was, "How do I vote?" 

In the middle of a heated election season surrounded by nearly 50 people from at least 15 different countries who are relatively new to the U.S. and its government, I watched just as many heads fervently nod in agreement and eager to hear the answer.

They wanted to be here. They wanted to be active participants. They wanted to vote. Already, these Americans, fresh to the system and not registered to a particular party yet, wanted to exercise a right that so many in this country, including military members, take for granted. They hoped to make a difference. They hoped to make a change.

We always talk about the need for growth and change in American politics but cease to realize the very greatness of a country that can change. It's because of hope, diversity, untainted ideas and the excitement to vote, that we have the opportunity to change.

Who are we to crush that hope, or perhaps worse, take it for granted?

As one of many Airmen in those two rows supporting the naturalization of a fellow Airman, I felt pride. As a person, watching other people take steps to accomplish their goals both for themselves and their families, I felt pride.

Today and every day, I feel pride in the country that I choose to stand for and pride in the people who I've chosen to stand with.

Just as I am not Kenyan like the Airman I witnessed become an American, these people probably didn't come from the same country, religion, culture, economic class or educational background that I did. However, they did come with ideas in their heads and hope in their hearts to grow an even greater nation - our nation.

No matter our origins, our bond is that nation. We are Americans - all of us.

I think as Americans, we forget the hope of the many who rush to be a part of our country. But, as I watched excitement wash down the aisles when the moderator wished each new citizen congratulations, I felt it. Like a strong Oklahoman wind gust, it swept over the room and scattered my political frustrations.

Without that hope, we will not grow. But even further, we have to be that change, whether it's in the world or in a single heart.

Vote. Volunteer. Empower. Hope. We do it, or someone else will do it for us.

For information on Naturalization through military service, visit the USCIS fact sheet at https://www.uscis.gov/news/fact-sheets/naturalization-through-military-service-fact-sheet.

For information on citizenship, visit the USCIS homepage at https://www.uscis.gov/.

For military and federal voting assistance, visit https://www.fvap.gov/.