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Noncitizen Soldiers

April 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY KAYE: George Rincon took video of his son Diego just before the soldier shipped out to war.

GEORGE RINCON: The last time that I saw my son alive, and I knew it.

JEFFREY KAYE: 19-year old Diego Fernando Rincon was killed last month in Iraq, along with three other members of the third infantry division by a suicide bomber. Rincon had been trained to assist medics as a combat lifesaver. He was also a light machine gunner. Near his home in Conyers, Georgia, recently, Private First Class Rincon received a funeral befitting a military hero: A flag-draped casket, a contingent of army officials, and a 21-gun salute. But this ceremony included an extra formality: An immigration official came to present a citizenship certificate.

SPOKESMAN: Be it known that Diego Fernando Rincon gave his life in the defense of the United States as a member of the United States armed forces on March 29, 2003, and on that day is declared posthumously to be a citizen of these United States. (Applause)

JEFFREY KAYE: Rincon was a citizen of Colombia, one of 37,000 noncitizens serving in the active duty U.S. armed forces. The military requires only that immigrants be permanent residents, not necessarily citizens in order to serve. Nearly 13,000 reservists are also noncitizens. Rincon was one of at least seven noncitizens among the 128 U.S. Military personnel killed so far in the war in Iraq. All have been awarded posthumous citizenships. In 1989, when Diego was five years old, the Rincon family moved to the U.S. to escape violence. George had worked in Colombia as a bodyguard.

GEORGE RINCON: Bombs all over the place and, I don’t know. The drug cartel, they was doing terrible things to the people and that’s why I said to myself that I have to move to a different place.

JEFFREY KAYE: Someplace safer.

GEORGE RINCON: Better. Yeah.

JEFFREY KAYE: Reporter: In high school, Diego was active in gymnastics and drama. It was Sept. 11 that convinced Diego to join the U.S. Military, according to his older brother, Fabian.

FABIAN RINCON: We were just like all Americans, angry. But I think the difference between the Americans that were angry and my brother, and I guess other people that eventually signed up for the service, was that they took that anger and they focused it into a resolve that made them want to sign up and want to change things.

SOLDIER: Private get your head up and look where you’re going.

JEFFREY KAYE: About 2.5 percent of active duty armed forces are noncitizens. Many do their basic training at Ft. Benning, Georgia, where Diego Ricon also prepared to become a soldier.

SOLDIER: Let’s go!

SOLDIER: Yes, drill sergeant!

JEFFREY KAYE: For civilians, citizenship requires five years of residency in the U.S. Military personnel had been required to wait only three years, but last July, President Bush issued an order eliminating the waiting period for the military. Some in Congress want that provision written into law. Among the infantry recruits at Fort Benning, Darius Franczek from Poland; Petr Malinowski, another Pole; Aleksandr Chernin from Belarus; and Juan Gonzalez, born in Mexico. Company Commander Captain Derek Denny says in his experience citizens and noncitizens generally sign up for the same reasons.

CAPT. DEREK DENNY: They’re here to get money for education purposes. They’re here to take care of their family; they’re here to get job experience. And a lot of them are here just to serve their country.

JUAN GONZALEZ, Citizen of Mexico: Actually my whole family works in the construction business, and that’s like very hard work, and I work with them and I didn’t want to work in construction. So that’s why I joined the army so I could have a better life and more benefits.

DARIUS FRANCZEK, Citizen of Poland: My dad would have paid for my college, but I was slacking off too much, partying too much. It was more about my friends than about myself, you know. So, I’m here to straighten out, and I’m doing it. Plus I’m serving the greatest country in the world. So I’m proud of it.

JEFFREY KAYE: Immigrants have had a long history in the U.S. Military. They’ve fought in all U.S. wars. But as long as they are noncitizens, their opportunities in the U.S. armed forces are limited. For the most part they cannot be promoted to officers, and they don’t have access to classified information. At Rincon’s funeral, his brother read his last letter home.

DIEGO RINCON: I believe that God has a path for me. Whether I make it or not, it’s all part of the plan. It can’t be changed, only completed.

JEFFREY KAYE: At the time of their son’s death, Rincon’s family was in the process of applying for citizenship.