SASEBO, Japan – The flight deck of the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) was the backdrop for 35 Sailors and Marines, nine spouses and two children becoming U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony May 20.
Participants consisted of service members and dependents assigned to Essex, USS Guardian (MCM 5), USS Denver (LPD 9), USS Tortuga (LSD 46), USS Germantown (LSD 42) and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. A large crowd of friends, families and co-workers watched as the group took the Oath of Allegiance on the ship’s flight deck.
Capt. David Fluker, Essex commanding officer, congratulated Sailors who obtained their U.S. citizenship during the ceremony.
"These new United States citizens have already sacrificed significantly through their service in the Navy and Marine Corps and now will enjoy all of the privileges and responsibility that comes with being an American citizen while continuing to serve their new nation," said Fluker.
The oath was administered by Kenneth Sherman, field office director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for Japan.
“Overseas, we only naturalize about 1,500 people a year, which is a small percentage of the total number of people who get naturalized in the United States every year, and only members of the U.S. military and their dependents can be naturalized overseas, so this is a significant event,” said Sherman.
The ceremony was also significant because it was nearly cancelled due to the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan earlier this year.
“This is a unique event in how significant it is to be able to do this in Japan right now,” said Sherman. “We had planned on doing a naturalization ceremony in Okinawa this March, but because of the military’s involvement in the relief efforts from the tsunami and earthquake, we had to push back the dates. Now we are coming back to do the naturalization ceremonies for those military member whom we missed due to the relief efforts in Japan.”
To finally take the oath was the culmination of a long process for the new citizens, said Lt. Christopher Morris, Essex legal officer.
“The ceremony is the staple moment where the Sailors are becoming U.S. citizens,” he said. “They are taking the oath to become U.S. citizens. Leading up to this, they had to get a green card, apply for citizenship and go through an interview process, among other things, to become a U.S. citizen.”
The process of becoming a U.S. citizen is expedited for service members. For most civilians, the wait to become a U.S. citizen can be up to five years.
“To become citizens, they need to fill out paperwork, provide green card paperwork, fingerprints and documentation of where the Sailor is from,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) Airman Laura Hernandez, a legal clerk aboard Essex. “The whole process usually takes a few months to complete.”
The ship’s legal office was critical in assisting throughout the application process, said Airman Cherrypie Cabigting, who became a citizen during the ceremony.
“It’s not too long of a process because the legal office helps you fill out all the paperwork,” said Cabigting. “All I had to do was to get a picture taken to send in. It was very easy because I am already a member of the military.”
The benefits of becoming a U.S. citizen can help to enhance the Sailor’s Navy career opportunities.
“Becoming a U.S. citizen benefits the Sailor because it means they are a part of the country now,” said Hernandez. “For a lot of the security clearances, Sailors need to be a U.S. citizen, so it helps them in their Navy career to become a U.S. citizen.”
Becoming a citizen and being eligible to receive a security clearance can also increase a Sailor’s career choices.
“I have a lot of choices for my career now because all I could do before was culinary specialist or be undesignated,” said Cabigting. “I came in as an undesignated Sailor, but now that I can get a security clearance, I can be an aviation maintenance administrationman or an air-traffic controller.”
Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Fuels) Airman Maryfer Lopez, who also became a citizen during the ceremony, said she now looks forward to pursuing her dream of becoming an officer.
“I have a bachelor’s degree in the Philippines, but since I wasn’t a U.S. citizen, I wasn’t able to apply for the officer program, but now I can,” she said.
In addition to helping Sailors with their career opportunities in the Navy, becoming a U.S. citizen can also benefit the Sailor’s family.
“Some of the family members of military members are not able to immigrate to the United States, so they have been following the military member all over the world with green cards,” said Sherman. “During the crisis in Japan we saw how much of a problem that was for the military members and their families who were trying to depart from Japan, but weren’t able to quickly leave because of their non-status as U.S. citizens. Now we will be able to help the families, as well as the military members, by helping them to become U.S. citizens.”
With 46 participants, the naturalization ceremony was the largest ever held aboard Essex.
"It was a great honor and privilege to host the naturalization ceremony aboard USS Essex as it allowed me to recognize the determination and sacrifice that our new American citizens demonstrated to achieve their goal," said Fluker. "It was especially fulfilling to swear our new citizens on board Essex while they are serving overseas, and it is a reminder that our Navy ships are sovereign U. S. territory wherever in the world they sail."