American Enterprise Online, November 17, 2004*
The American Enterprise, March 2005
By Alan W. Dowd

One of them is a combat engineer who cleared the way for America’s lightning advance through Iraq and into Baghdad in 2003. Another spent a grueling 15 months in Iraq as part of the 1st Infantry Division—the fabled Big Red One. Still another lost a leg when his convoy was hit by a roadside bomb. Two others lost everything in the march to Baghdad, and died so that others might live in freedom.  

These men share a special bond. Yes, they are veterans. Yes, they are combat veterans. And yes, they are liberators of Iraq. Yet the bond that sets them apart transcends the uniform they wear, the battles they’ve waged and even the sacrifices they’ve made. You see, even though they fought (and some of them died) for America, none of them were Americans while they were fighting. Rather, they were immigrants, who in a very real sense, were fighting for their own freedom as well as Iraq’s.

Their names, by the way, are Hernandez Reyes, who logged the 15-month tour in Iraq; Hilbert Caesar, who lost his leg; David Garcia, who opened the path to Baghdad in March 2003; Jose Gutierrez, who was killed in the battle for Umm Qasir; and Jose Garibay, who was killed in Nasiriyah.  

They came from El Salvador, Guyana, Guatemala and Mexico. But all of them are now Americans. Some of them even took the Oath of Citizenship last week, on Veterans Day. In perhaps the most stirring and fitting Veterans Day gathering, 80 Marines and sailors—hailing from 25 different countries as far away as Syria and as close to home as Canada—took the Oath on the USS Midway at port in San Diego.  

As veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, they represent a remarkable and select group of people, of course. No nation has so often or so feely deployed its military forces to liberate the oppressed and help the helpless. As their current commander-in-chief explained, in words he borrowed from the prophet Isaiah, “Wherever you go, you carry a message of hope, a message that is ancient and ever new—‘to the captives, come out; and to those in darkness, be free.’”  

But as immigrant-veterans, these men represent an arguably even more remarkable cohort. According to the Pentagon, almost 31,000 of the troops who are defending us are not yet Americans. To his credit, in 2002, President George W. Bush streamlined the naturalization process for immigrants serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. According to the American Forces Information Service, more than half of those eligible have requested expedited citizenship; and 8,000 have already become American citizens, about two dozen posthumously.  

Writing on the eve of a war that would end his short life, Garibay concluded, poignantly, “I want to defend the country I plan to become a citizen of.”  Gutierrez said of the mission in Iraq, his last mission, “It’s my job. It’s also my duty.” A battle-hardened veteran before he turned 21, Garcia says, “I wouldn’t compare myself to World War veterans or Vietnam veterans.” Caesar, who left a limb on some nameless road in Iraq, vows to return to active duty. 

As someone who has never put on a uniform to defend his country, it’s humbling to think that these people are willing to defend a country that is not yet their own. And it’s nothing short of amazing that I live in such a place, a nation so unique that others will literally risk everything—their lives, their future, their home and health, their safety and security—to be a part of it.

I suspect these special veterans know more about what it means to be American than many of the people they defend. Their stories call to mind something Reagan said after listening to another special group of veterans—men who had been taken captive and tortured in Hanoi. “Where did we find them?” he asked. “Where did we find such men?” Of course, he knew the answer before he finished the question: “We found them where we’ve always found them—on Main Street, on our farms, in shops and stores, in offices, oil stations and factories.”

And today, we find them in places like El Salvador, Guyana, Guatemala, Mexico and dozens of other lands. Some of them even find their way to us.

*This piece was originally published as "Fighting for Freedom" in American Enterprise Online and was re-published in The American Enterprise under the heading "Welcoming a Few Good Men."