On a Friday in early October, 58 immigrants from 24 countries across the globe sat together in anticipation at the U.S. District Courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
It was naturalization day. Fifty-eight individual, unique journeys all led to a singular moment; they would all raise their right hands and take the Oath of Allegiance together.
Sitting in the desired “first chair” was a young man whose journey to U.S. citizenship looked much different than that of his 57 peers. Pfc. Fortytwo Chotper, originally from Sudan, came to America from a refugee camp in Kenya, leaving behind a dozen siblings, his mother, and everything he had ever known.
The process of coming to America as a refugee took Chotper seven years. During that time, he used any money he could earn to purchase television minutes and learn English – his third language – from American cartoons.
From the moment he stepped on Iowa soil, his new home, he knew he wanted to do something few others do; he wanted to join the U.S. military.
“I wasn’t joining to get citizenship,” Chotper said. “I was just doing it to give thanks to the United States for bringing me here from the refugee camp.”
With help from Brian and Samantha McClain, an Iowa couple who first met Chotper through the college bookstore where Samantha works, Chotper got in touch with an Iowa Army National Guard recruiter.
“He had always since we met him talked about joining the military,” Brian said.
“He said he wanted to do something that most Americans weren’t willing to do, because he was so grateful that he had the opportunity to come here.”
When Chotper learned he could qualify for accelerated citizenship through his service in the Guard, it was the unexpected icing on the cake.
“It’s a pretty simple process, really,” explained Sean Sejkora, an administrative specialist with Alpha Company Recruit Sustainment Program (RSP) at Camp Dodge in Johnston, Iowa.
Sejkora’s job is to help incoming Soldiers with all their administrative requirements before leaving for basic training. In his three years on the job, he’s helped nearly 20 Soldiers apply for accelerated citizenship.
“It’s like a lengthy job application,” Sejkora said of the 20-page application form.
In order to apply for accelerated citizenship, Sejkora said Soldiers must have a passport, a green card (permanent residency document), a photo for the naturalization certificate, and two forms – the N400, a universal form for all citizenship applicants, and the N426, a military certification for the accelerated process.
“[The process] is accelerated, it’s free and we help them do everything they need to do,” Sejkora said.
Without military membership and support, the process can take years and cost hundreds of dollars, said Sgt. Maj. Timothy Perkins, the former State Equal Employment Manager for the Iowa National Guard.
“As a citizen in general you just kind of take it for granted,” Perkins said. “You don’t realize [obtaining citizenship] is a hard process and it’s a big deal.”
Though Perkins now works in the Iowa National Guard Education Services Office as the Student Loan Repayment Manager, he said he still advocates for diversity in the Guard.
“If you’ve always been a citizen and you grew up in Iowa…you’re not used to diversity,” Perkins said. “Not because you don’t care, you just didn’t have it for the longest time.”
He said throughout his 31-year career, he has seen the importance of diversity in the military, and he’s witnessed the Iowa National Guard embrace the concept.
In order to gain citizenship through the Guard, Perkins said applicants must first meet all the same standards as any other Soldier – they have to pass a background check, meet physical requirements and pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test.
The program for accelerated citizenship was first started during WWII and reinstated by former President George W. Bush in 2002. It requires applicants to be deployable for war, Perkins said. Typically, the citizenship application process is completed during Basic Combat Training and Soldiers are awarded their naturalization certificates upon graduation.
For Chotper, the process was delayed due to a paperwork error. Though his citizenship was delayed several months, it presented a new opportunity for members of the Iowa National Guard.
“It’s actually kind of neat for us to go see the ceremony because normally we don’t get to see the end result while they’re down at training,” Sejkora said.
On that Friday in early October, more than 15 members of the Iowa National Guard – including Chotper’s command team from the 1168th Transportation Company and Brig. Gen. Randy Greenwood, the Iowa Air National Guard Chief of Staff – packed the courtroom in their dress uniforms to witness Chotper’s first moments as a U.S. citizen.
Honored with the “first chair,” Chotper was the first person in the room to receive his naturalization certificate.
Perkins said he hoped Chotper and others like him could serve as an example.
“There are people here, as residents, who are contributing, and then they’re joining the military,” Perkins said. “Only one percent of our own citizens bother to do that.”
Smiling from ear to ear and taking photos with all the people who came out to support him – from his new first sergeant to his battalion commander to the McClains who welcomed him into their family – Chotper said he felt like he could fly.
“I feel like I’ve become wholly American,” Chotper said, his dress uniform adorned with the two standard ribbons each Soldier earns upon completing entry-level training. Among his uniform-clad cheering section, he looked every bit the part.
For Sejkora, who has helped hundreds of Soldiers navigate the beginning of their careers with the Iowa National Guard, it was a fulfilling moment to witness the citizenship process come full circle from the initial application.
“Without exception, I’ve been impressed with every single one of these permanent residents,” Sejkora said. “I’m very happy to have helped Chotper on his way, and I’d be happy to help many more.
Story by Staff Sgt. Christie Smith
Joint Forces Headquarters, Iowa National Guard