Abdullahi Mohamud was 16 when he came from Somalia to the United States in 1986, moving in with Washington-area relatives. Two years later, when war broke out between the Somali government and rebel groups, Mohamud was granted asylum.
Mohamud knew he wanted to do something in return. He got his green card for permanent residency, applied for citizenship and, at age 24, enlisted in the U.S. Marines. It was Veterans Day in 1994.
"The United States offered me a sanctuary and I wanted to give back," said Mohamud, 45, now living in Bethesda, Maryland. "Even though I was not a citizen, I wanted to be part of this nation. This is my adopted motherland."
Allegiance to the flag
Americans on Tuesday mark Veterans Day, honoring men and women who have served in the U.S. military and made sacrifices for their country.
But not all veterans are, or were, American citizens.
Citizenship is not a requirement for joining the U.S. military. To enlist, a noncitizen must have immigrated legally to the United States and gotten a green card, or official permanent residency. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than 65,000 non-citizens and immigrants are currently on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces. Thousands more are veterans like Mohamud.
Mohamud did a tour of duty in Iraq, where he helped defuse tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite communities during the 2005 legislative elections. He said being both Somali and Muslim worked in his favor, because some Iraqis did not trust the U.S. forces.
"I know the culture, the religion and the people, so I was able to relate to the Iraqi people," he said. "When I said I was from Somalia, right away they were able to accept me. And I spoke a little bit of Arabic, so I’d throw in a little bit of words and that took care of the mistrust."
During his 13 years in the Marines, Mohamud worked in civil affairs and became a U.S. citizen.
“Now I was a full member of American society,” he said with pride.
Today, he’s using the military’s educational benefits to work on a graduate degree in cybersecurity at the University of Maryland.
Citizenship journey begins with Navy
Military service 50 years ago enabled Philippines native Claudio Pedery to become a U.S. citizen.
He followed in his father’s footsteps by enlisting in the U.S. Navy, like thousands of other Filipinos, taking advantage of a long-standing alliance between the two countries. The Philippines was an American territory for 48 years before gaining independence in 1946.
Pedery did two tours of duty during the Vietnam War and provided logistical supplies to South Vietnamese ships. Being Filipino had its advantages, he said, since the Vietnamese were more comfortable with the Filipino sailors because they were Asian.
"We get kind of good treatment, better treatment. And I can speak a little Vietnamese," he added.
Pedery's citizenship opportunity came in 1965, when the U.S. abolished an immigration quota system based on national origin. Non-immigrants serving in the U.S. military, like Pedery, could receive expedited citizenship. That opened doors by allowing him to live and work in the United States, Pedery said. When he retired from the Navy after 21 years, he continued using his logistical skills at companies in the United States.
"I had the opportunity to be given secret clearance because all the equipment we were working on were highly classified and only a U.S. citizen could work on those," he said.
A final US home
His late wife, also from the Philippines, was allowed to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia because she was the spouse of a veteran. When Pedery’s time comes, he will be placed by her side.
"It’s a great privilege and honor," he said of interment there. "Imagine, from a humble beginning from the Philippines, to be buried there. It’s awesome."
The cemetery provides the final resting place for at least 50 others who were not born in the United States. They include an Air Force pilot from Iraq, who’s buried with four U.S. airmen he’d accompanied on an Iraqi Air Force plane when it crashed in 2005 during a training mission.