When I was twenty, I lost everything and started over. It had been twenty-five years since my mother had submitted the application for a visa to the US, and amazingly it finally came through. I was living on my own, had my own house, job and life, but my mother said leave it. We’re going to America. We dropped everything and left. I didn’t even know any English.
That was 2000. We ended up settling in New Jersey, and I worked hard to learn to speak English without an accent, started studying on my own time and started working too. I liked America. There was so much opportunity. Less than a year later, the planes hit the towers in Manhattan.
I couldn’t see the towers themselves from where I lived, but I sure saw the smoke billowing high over the island, and I was angry. I was new here, but this was home, those were my countrymen, and we were being attacked. I wanted to do something, and soon enough I did. I joined the Army.
You don’t have to be a citizen to join the military, which is a little strange, and there are only about 66,000 veterans in the entire country that aren’t US citizens. When we join, it expedites the application process, but it still takes awhile. They’ve waived the waiting period since then, but at the time, we had to be in at least a year before they’d start the process. Now, it’s different. The first day you’re in boot camp, they’ll start helping you become a citizen. It wasn’t like that then.
But I wasn’t really interested in that, actually. I wasn’t joining for perks or to get citizenship. I joined because my home, my friends and my country were attacked. Not for benefits. I wanted to keep these attacks from happening again.
After about a year in the Army stateside, we deployed and I did another year in Iraq. It felt good, doing something meaningful, serving my country. I loved the sense of belonging. Nobody cared that I wasn’t a citizen. It really didn’t matter. We’d all taken the same oath to the same flag, the same Constitution, and to preserve the same values. It was colorblind unity to a single cause. When I got back, the Army started helping me apply for citizenship. I really wasn’t worried about it, but they encouraged me to, so I began the applications. Since I was going to make a career out of the military, I needed to get it out of the way with anyway. You’re only allowed eight years to get it all figured out. But then I ruined it.
Not long after I got back to the states, a friend introduced me to cocaine, and without knowing what hit me, I was badly hooked, still in the Army, and bound for trouble. That quickly came when they did random drug tests and I popped hot.
I make no excuses for what I did, since it was entirely my fault. It was a mistake which I regret, and I can’t take it back, but I can at least take ownership of it. I told them the truth, since I had at least that much integrity remaining. And it was devastating. My friends were astonished, my command was surprised, and actually I was, too. I’d never been in trouble before – ever. I’d never even smoked a cigarette before. But somehow I wound up addicted to cocaine. They started the paperwork to get me kicked out of the Army.
I was ashamed of myself, to say the least, and knew that I’d let myself down, let down my country, and let down my friends, too. The guilt was so compelling that I cleaned up immediately. I worked hard at it. I went through all the withdrawal symptoms and the cravings. I even checked into a rehab and got over it. And I’ve been clean ever since, too. I haven’t slipped once.
But it didn’t matter. There’s a zero tolerance policy for drugs in the Army, and after five months of withdrawal symptoms and rehab, grilling and regret, they kicked me out with a general discharge under honorable conditions. It really should have been a dishonorable discharge. The only reason I got what I did was because I cooperated fully. I knew what I did was wrong. I told them the truth. Yet here, it didn’t set me free. This, I know, is entirely my doing. When they kicked me out, though, they dropped all the charges against me.
That was 2006. I’ve been clean ever since, and still living here in the states. It’s been difficult though. Because I didn’t receive an honorable discharge, I lost all the GI Bill benefits, and the VA will only see me for service-related medical problems, which I don’t have. I’ve been going to school and paying for it myself, and I’m close to graduating with a 3.8 GPA. I’ve done okay. I also have a job I like, which is nice. But there’s another problem.
Last year, my citizenship application came through. I’d passed all the interviews and the tests, and they invited me to a swearing in ceremony. All I had to do was raise my right hand and I’d be a citizen. But then my past caught up with me once again. Right before the ceremony, they gave us one last short questionnaire. One of the questions was if we’d ever done anything criminal in the past. I may have made mistakes, but I’m not a liar, so I told the truth. When they read that, they sent me away – without swearing in. Application denied.
My visa expires next year, and right now, I have no idea what I’m going to do. People make mistakes all the time, but any sort of criminal behavior by citizenship applicants is magnified tenfold. They scrutinize each candidate individually, and when I told them about the blemish on my record, they balked. The soonest I can apply again is five years from the date they turned me down.
I’m in limbo. I’ve been in the US for nine years, and I love it here. I love America. This is home, and there’s nothing left in my home country to return to. I don’t know if they’re going to deport me, if I should just go ahead and leave anyway, or if there are any ways to reapply for citizenship earlier – or maybe appeal my case before the five year waiting period is up. I’m afraid that this has all been a waste, and it’s entirely my fault.
I am not asking for help, because this is something that I did to myself. I’m not complaining either, because again, this is my fault. I guess it just feels good to talk about it a little. I don’t discuss it with people, because it’s embarrassing. My own family doesn’t even know, actually. I still haven’t told them. I’d just overwhelm them with shame and disappointment anyway, and there’s no reason to do that.
But I’m at a loss. This is home now, yet I don’t think they’re going to accept me here. My native country is little more than distant memory I abruptly left behind nearly a decade ago. I love it here, and I want to stay. I’ve been perfectly clean since that one incident in the Army, and I fully intend to stay that way. It nearly ruined me once. My entire twenties may have been a waste, and I only have myself to blame. I really don’t have a country anymore, and the country I want doesn’t want me. All I can do is wait and pray, but right now that doesn’t seem like much.
Though he has not asked for it, I want to help this friend and brother. He has honorably served the same country as have I and millions of others. He has made no excuses for his mistakes and made no claim of perfection. That character alone far exceeds many of the citizens blessed to call this country home. I know little of immigration laws and the citizenship application process, so I humbly appeal to any who may know more and could perhaps offer this close companion some advice regarding his dilemma. He isn’t asking for it, but I am. If we claim to be a nation that sees hope where others find none, we would do well to prove it. I see a good man, a patriot, and one who, though new to America, fell in love with its ideologies, its freedom, and its opportunity. In truth, we need more men like him. ~bys
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved