AL ASAD, Iraq -- On Sept. 11, 2001, a young Trinidad native who relocated to New York with his family three years earlier was sitting in a U.S. Military Entrance Processing Station, waiting to take his first steps toward his future as a Marine. The terrorist attacks that day delayed his trip to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., but steeled his resolve to become a Marine.
"It was like watching something from a movie," said Sgt. Andre G. Joseph, a personnel administration chief with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 26. "I was upset about it, especially since it was happening right where I was in New York. But, it was not going to let me change my mind."
Four years later and Joseph is not only a U.S. Marine, but, after a ceremony held Dec. 18, in Baghdad, also a U.S. citizen. Joseph, a 22-year-old graduate of Francis Lewis High School in Flushing, N.Y., worked to secure his citizenship since joining the military.
"It was something I always wanted," Joseph said. "I always felt like an American, but in fact I wasn't. Even as a Marine, it was like I was serving, but it wasn't my country."
Joseph enjoyed his experiences in the United States and saw the military as a positive way to further himself.
"After we moved, I adapted to the lifestyle here during high school and I always had a positive view of the military," Joseph said. "I didn't have a lot of options, not being a citizen. I met with a Marine recruiter and saw the possibilities of a future in the service. After that, I was ready to go to Parris Island as soon as I graduated. I wanted to have a solid foundation for my future."
Under normal circumstances, aliens and noncitizen nationals have to serve for three years on active duty in the U.S. military before they are eligible for citizenship. During July 2002, President George W. Bush issued an executive order to remove the three-year waiting period for service members serving since the 9/11 attacks. The order will remain in effect until the president cancels it.
"I feel that if you are willing to join the U.S. military and fight for this country, citizenship should be automatic," Joseph said. "I was very encouraged when the president made this order. It takes a long time to get through the application process. Having to wait three years to even begin it would have been difficult."
Joseph joined the Patriots of MALS-26 as an administrative clerk, after recruit training. Nearing the end of a yearlong deployment to Al Asad, Iraq, and with a five-month deployment to Afghanistan under his belt, Joseph said he couldn't have picked a better squadron to join.
"This is a very tight unit," Joseph said. "It's really like a big family here. The Marines are very supportive of one another, all the way from the youngest Marine to the commanding officer. I was looking forward to deploying to Iraq with this unit because of the atmosphere it has. I wouldn't have wanted to come with anyone else."
When Joseph learned that he could finalize the citizenship process in Baghdad, he made it one of his top goals for the deployment. Faced with a frustrating application process, Joseph said his determination might have wavered if it wasn't for the support and encouragement of his fellow Marines.
"A lot of people just didn't understand the process or have all the right information," Joseph said. "A lot of it relied on me constantly pushing it, making calls, tracking down information on my own. It was very frustrating. Sometimes I didn't know if it would happen. The squadron executive officer constantly encouraged me."
Major Marion D. Jones, MALS-26's executive officer, said helping his Marines is not just a part of the job, it's a squadron philosophy.
"We have a saying in the MALS headquarters that it is the little things that count," Jones said. "With every Marine and Sailor deployed from six months to a year in the squadron, the emphasis was to focus in on those things that will make this time more meaningful for that Marine or Sailor to keep their head in the game."
Jones said he knew Joseph had a future goal of becoming an officer and encouraging him to reach that goal meant helping him through the citizenship application.
"An individual works harder for you if they know you are sincerely interested in their well-being," Jones said. "(Joseph) sincerely desires to become a Marine officer. I am avid about enlisted Marines seeking a commission because I came from the enlisted ranks. The key to getting him there was first to get that citizenship."
Joseph was flown into Baghdad for the ceremony alongside new citizens from all different services and backgrounds.
"It was awesome," Joseph said. "I met Marines, Soldiers and Sailors from all over the world, Egypt, China, Korea, Ethiopia, all finally becoming Americans with me."
Joseph said the ceremony was a final fulfillment after years of serving a country that wasn't officially his own.
"I felt brand new again," Joseph said. "It was similar to the way graduating from recruit training feels. When I became an American, it felt like I was finally tying a knot. Now, I really am serving my country."
Jones said Joseph's accomplishment was a success for himself and the squadron as a whole.
"To be able to see someone who will not only make a good American, but also become and officer of Marines is tremendously satisfying for me," Jones said. "I own a part of the dream with him now. Besides that, I think anyone who is willing to sacrifice for this country should be a citizen. That's not rocket science, but the process to get there makes it seem so. We were grateful to the civilians and staff judge advocate folks who went beyond status quo to make this a reality."
Joseph now has the opportunity to truly appreciate what it means to be an American citizen, something he said many natural-born service members may take for granted.
"If you follow your family history back far enough, at some point you will find the people who struggled to become an American," Joseph said. "That legacy is something to be proud of. I am proud of what I've accomplish and I look forward to being able to tell my children about it."
Now Joseph is looking toward the future, hoping to enroll in the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program so he can accomplish two more goals, gaining a college education and an officer commission. During his off time, he is trying to help three Marines find their way through the citizenship application process.
"He is a Marine who shows compassion, yet he is firm with his Marines," said Master Sgt. James J. Castleberry, the administration chief for MALS-26. "When there is a task to be completed within headquarters, you can find him."
Joseph is looking forward to returning to his wife and family in New York when the Patriots leave Al Asad during early 2006, but he said he always cherish the memories he has of his accomplishments in Iraq and the people who helped him get there.
"This has been such a special deployment for me," Joseph said. "I couldn't have picked a better group of Marines to come out here with and I'll never forget the things we accomplished together. I may not be on the front lines, but I am serving my nation and I'm proud to do it."