Serving the Country Not Quite Theirs

(Courtesy Joseph J. Brown - Courtesy Joseph J. Brown)

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2005

Cpl. Joseph J. Brown almost gave his life for a country that wasn't his.

In the deadly Baghdad slum of Sadr City, on Aug. 16, 2004, his Army unit came under attack. Several comrades were out in the open, with insurgents pressing toward them. Brown, a tank driver, grabbed the .50-caliber machine gun on the tank and raked the attackers.

"I knew I was going to die," he recalls. But instead, "I took them down, the bad guys."

The citation on the Army Commendation Medal he earned that day says his courageous actions "led to the safe evacuation of his crew despite numerous IED's."

He brought home something else from that day -- wounds from an explosion during the firefight, including spinal injuries, nerve damage to his left leg and post-traumatic stress disorder. In boot camp, he could run two miles in 11 minutes, he says, but now walking too far hurts his leg.

Five months after Brown was wounded, Iraqis cast ballots in their first democratic election in half a century. Back home in the United States, Brown could not vote. He was not a citizen.

An immigrant from Liberia, a legal resident of Woodbridge for six years, Brown had as his only regret the fact that the Army considered him disabled, so he could not get back in the fight.

"My service in the Army was going to be infinite," the 21-year-old veteran says.

Now he's embarking on a different American future.

Your country is worth dying for, isn't it? How about your country's controversial effort to bail out another country?

During wartime with a volunteer military, most born-and-raised Americans can remain utterly cocooned from any sacrifice. Immigrants are playing a small but striking role. The presence of about 37,000 noncitizens on active duty and in the National Guard and the Reserves points up the quandary of what anyone owes to his country.

In 2002, President Bush ordered that noncitizens in the military as of Sept. 11, 2001, be immediately eligible to apply for citizenship, rather than having to wait the usual three years. Since then, nearly 25,000 have been naturalized, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services. Citizenship ceremonies take place even in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. On Friday -- Veterans Day -- 110 sailors and Marines were naturalized aboard the USS Midway, the floating museum in San Diego Harbor.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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