By Deborah Huso

When marine corps Lance Cpl. Andrews K. Nsenkyire was a boy in Ghana, he never dreamed about coming to the U.S. “I had no way to come here,” he said. “I had no family in the U.S.” Even when one of his teachers in high school encouraged him to fill out an application for a national lottery to obtain an immigration visa to the U.S., Nsenkyire still didn’t think much about it and even forgot he’d filled out the application until his teacher called him, four months after he’d graduated high school, and told him he was one of Ghana’s 5,832 lottery applicants who had won the opportunity to apply for a visa to the U.S.

Despite having taken only a few English classes in school and never having had the opportunity to speak the language, Nsenkyire came to the U.S. May 4, 2012, and almost immediately looked to enter the U.S. Army. But the Marine Corps began to turn Nsenkyire’s head after his roommate told him, “Join the Marines. They’re the best fighting force on the planet.”

Within months, Nsenkyire was in boot camp, polishing his English language skills and applying for U.S. citizenship. After graduating from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., he began as an administrative specialist with the Installation Personnel Administration Center at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. “Promotion, pay issues, awards — everything goes through me,” says Nsenkyire. “I’m the liaison between the command and the unit.”

While he was learning the ropes in the Marine Corps, Nsenkyire also was working to become a U.S. citizen.

Seeking service 

For decades, service in the armed forces has provided an escalated path to citizenship for foreign nationals. Following 9/11, President George W. Bush signed an executive order July 3, 2002, authorizing all noncitizens who have served honorably in the nation’s military on or after Sept. 11, 2001, to immediately apply for citizenship. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), more than 89,000 members of the armed forces have obtained citizenship since September 2002, with nearly 11,000 of them gaining citizenship while serving in foreign countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait.

“When the nation is in a war period, if you’ve served one day in the armed forces, you are eligible to apply,” says Daniel Cosgrove, media relations, USCIS. He points out that since 2009, naturalization has been offered simultaneously with boot camp in the Army and progressively in the other branches, so foreign nationals leave basic training as full citizens.

“It serves a number of functions for the military servicemember,” Cosgrove says. “They can serve their entire career as citizens, and once they go to wherever they are after basic training, it can be harder to get ahold of applicants.” Thus, completing the naturalization process concurrently with basic training removes the obstacle of trying to help a foreign national gain citizenship while serving in a combat situation in, for example, Afghanistan.

Filling a need 

While the benefits of serving in the armed forces to gain access to citizenship are obvious to servicemembers like Nsenkyire, those benefits serve both sides. The U.S. is in need of servicemembers, particularly those with specialized skills, and foreign nationals often provide expertise their American counterparts cannot.

A former member of a Special Forces unit who immigrated to the U.S. from the Balkans — and who prefers to remain anonymous given his ongoing work in military intelligence — says he strongly supports the U.S. working to recruit foreign nationals and speed up their naturalization process. “We are critically short of native linguists in Special Forces and military intelligence,” he says. “To serve in Special Forces or Operations, you have to speak two or more languages.” Fewer Americans can meet that requirement, especially when it comes to having the ability to speak a foreign language with the ease of a native. “When you have a native language ability, you more easily overcome cross-cultural communication issues,” he adds, specifically pointing to the Vietnam War as a turning point for bringing foreign nationals into the armed forces and rewarding them with citizenship. “Although Vietnam was very divisive,” he says, “the draft brought in an array of unique capabilities from servicemembers who were foreign-born.”

Among them was Siad Mohammed, a native of Trinidad. Lynette Mohammed says her late husband joined the U.S. Army specifically to become a U.S. citizen. “He went to New York on a student visa,” she says, “but he wanted to stay, and being in the Army was the easiest way to do that. Otherwise, he would have needed a sponsor.”

Siad Mohammed was a military police officer with the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam from 1970 through 1972 and then in the Army Reserve for 17 more years.

The Mohammeds’ oldest daughter, Nisha Whitehead, says, “His service transformed the lives of our entire family. As a result of his service, Dad not only became a citizen but [also] brought Mom to the States as well as his own parents and younger siblings.”

Nsenkyire hopes to follow a similar path. Now that he is a citizen, he plans to work on bringing members of his own family to the States. “I think what I did was the best and easiest way for someone to get his or her citizenship,” he says. “My leaders always helped keep track of my paperwork and made sure I had transportation to appointments with immigration services.”

Before he had the opportunity to come to the U.S., Nsenkyire was uncertain about the course his life would take. Now he is making plans for a 20-year career as a Marine and furthering his education. “It’s the best thing that has happened in my life,” he says.

Easing Access to Citizenship: How It Works 

The Immigration and Nationality Act has special provisions that allow the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to expedite the application and naturalization process for foreign nationals who are legal residents and members of the U.S. armed forces or recently were honorably discharged. Branches that qualify include the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, some units of the National Guard, and Select Reserve of the Ready Reserve. Spouses also might be eligible.

To qualify for citizenship, a servicemember must meet the following requirements:

  • good moral character;
  • knowledge of the English language;
  • knowledge of U.S. government and history; and
  • making an Oath of Allegiance to the U.S. Constitution.

Foreign nationals serving in the armed forces are exempt from some naturalization requirements, such as residency in the U.S., and can apply while serving overseas. As of 2009, servicemembers in the Army can naturalize when they graduate from basic training. The same rules since have been applied in the Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force.

Foreign nationals serving in the U.S. armed forces who require assistance with naturalization processes can contact the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at (877) CIS-4MIL (247-4645) or

Deborah Huso is a Virginia-based freelance writer. Her last feature article for Military Officer was “Certified Adventure,” June 2014.