Pfc. Diego Fernando Rincon, 19, flew a Colombian flag from the rearview mirror of the Mustang he bought with his Army signing bonus. Cpl. Kemaphoom A. Chanawongse, 22, created a Web site with photographs of himself in Marine uniform under the title, "the Thai import with a baby face." Just before Lance Cpl. Jesus A. Suarez Del Solar enlisted in the Marines, he went back to Mexico and bought a figurine of the Aztec warrior he considered himself to be.
Chanawongse now is classified as missing in action in Iraq. Rincon and Suarez Del Solar have been killed. Their fates attest to the toll the Iraq conflict is taking on young men and women who are fighting a war for a country that was not originally theirs.
After the war's first 21/2 weeks, the Pentagon has disclosed the names of 71 U.S. service members killed, seven missing and seven captured in Iraq. Of those, eight of the dead, two of the missing and two prisoners of war had immigrated to the United States, according to interviews with relatives and friends. Just four of the immigrants were U.S. citizens when the war began.
Their presence among the war's early victims outstrips the representation of immigrants in the U.S. military overall. Yet it reflects the military's attractiveness to foreign-born residents as they come of age -- an appeal that is fostered, in part, by policies that offer a quick path to citizenship for those who enlist.
As they explained it to their families, the attraction is a blend of wanderlust, economic aspiration and adoptive patriotism. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Rincon approached an Army recruiter, who had wandered into a Conyers, Ga., gym where the teenager worked, and announced that he wanted to help fight terrorism. On March 29, Rincon was one of four soldiers killed in a car bombing in Iraq.
This cadre of immigrants, now missing or dead, talked of an indelible pride in the armed services, in the nation's elemental values. Yet their individual identities persisted.
As a teenager in Tijuana, Mexico, Suarez Del Solar had been so eager to become a U.S. Marine that he persuaded his father to drop a budding political career there to move to Escondido, Calif. But after six years in this country, and nearly two in the Marines, the young man had chosen not to apply for U.S. citizenship. "He was a proud Mexican," said his father, Fernando Del Solar.
"He went to fight and he died, not specifically for the United States, but because he wanted to defend the world from this cancer that is Saddam Hussein, this cancer that is terrorism," his father said. "It wasn't just simple American patriotism."
Coexistent identities are an outgrowth of a military that historically has drawn its enlistees from diverse backgrounds, including foreign ones -- especially at moments of high need for recruits, according to social scientists and policy specialists. During World War I, toward the end of three decades of widespread European migration, nearly one in four enlistees in the U.S. armed services was foreign-born, according to Robert L. Goldich, a defense analyst for the Congressional Research Service.
According to Goldich and other researchers, Hispanics account for many of today's immigrant service members, although there also is a significant presence of Asian Americans, including young Vietnamese men and women who resettled as refugees from the war there.
All told, more than 37,000 members of the active-duty military -- nearly 3 percent of 1.4 million -- are noncitizens, one-third of them Latino, according to Defense Department figures. Compared with their U.S.-born counterparts, noncitizen military personnel are significantly more likely to be on active duty, rather than in the reserves. About one in six is a woman, similar to the military overall.
The service offers recent arrivals to the United States a way to "enter the mainstream without entirely relinquishing their origins," said Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at the University of Southern California. "There are multiple ways of belonging."
Immigrants who enlist tend to be "the upwardly mobile ones, the ambitious," attracted to a stable salary and a paid education, said Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist who specializes in the military. "And easy American citizenship, too. It's sort of win-win, unless you get killed."
"He just thought that this was a way for his future to start," said a cousin of Marine Sgt. Fernando Padilla-Ramirez, 26, who was born in a Mexican border town, grew up in San Luis, Ariz., and joined the Marines straight out of high school. He became a naturalized citizen two years ago and viewed the military as a route to his ultimate goal. "He wanted to be a motorcycle cop. He just had that in him," said the cousin, Andres Ramirez Jr. After the Pentagon announced last Sunday that he was missing in southern Iraq, the San Luis police fastened yellow ribbons to the grilles of their patrol cars.
The theme of upward mobility figures prominently in recruiting messages. One Navy Web site in English and Spanish, oriented toward a Latino audience, uses the motto: "El Navy. Accelerate your life."
The military's allure to some immigrants has been accentuated by a change in federal rules. Since the early 1900s, members of the military have been allowed to apply for citizenship after three years as a legal U.S. resident, two years less than the wait for civilians. In July, President Bush, using the war on terrorism to invoke a special rule for periods of military conflict, issued an executive order that waived the waiting period altogether. In the eight months since, the government has handled nearly 5,500 citizenship applications from military personnel under that rule -- a 60 percent increase over the eight months before the rule took effect.
The incentive for the military's immigrants to become citizens is strong: With few exceptions, only citizens may become officers.
Angela Infante, 24, moved from Colombia to Fairfax a dozen years ago and never thought much about citizenship when she was younger. Last Tuesday, as she awaited deployment to Iraq with her D.C. National Guard unit, she sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and recited an oath of allegiance at a naturalization ceremony, having realized that citizenship would allow her to apply for military security clearances and promotions.
The military also provides a forum for expressing a sense of Americanism. Before Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa went to the Middle East for the first time, to serve in the Gulf War of 1991, he was enraged by images he saw of protesters and Iraqis burning American flags. "He took it pretty personally," said his younger brother, David, also a Marine. "He said, 'Man, I want to go over and punch someone, because they don't understand what freedom is.' " The boys moved from the Philippines when they were 10 and 8 to join their mother, who had resettled in San Jose with a U.S. Navy man she met and married in Manila. Joseph was killed in action March 27.
For the enlistees' pride and patriotism, there is -- among several parents of the killed, the captured and the missing -- remorse at the idea that their efforts to provide better lives for their children in the United States have gone amiss.
Diego Rincon's father, George, moved his family to an Atlanta suburb in 1989 from Bogota, where he had suffered high blood pressure and threats on his life as a bodyguard to a wealthy Colombian businessman. "I said we have to move to the United States. It's the only way for my sons to have something in the future," said George Rincon, who started a carpet cleaning business six months after they arrived.
Last week, he was inconsolable. His handsome son had become a gymnast, a cheerleader and an actor -- once playing a Vietnam veteran in a play at Salem High School. He and his best friend had been chosen by Georgia Public Broadcasting to appear in a public service announcement against teenage drinking.
At Diego's enlistment ceremony in January 2002, his father was so moved that he approached a sergeant and asked whether he could sign up, too. He was too old. "He was so proud to be an American. You know what I mean?" his father said through tears last week.
Jesus Suarez Del Solar's father had long been more ambivalent about his son's choice. From the age of 11, the boy had been enthralled with the U.S. Marines, and he and a sister -- who was eager to join the Navy -- persuaded their father to move the family from Tijuana.
After they settled in California, Fernando Suarez Del Solar urged his son to became a lawyer, or perhaps a politician like the boy's grandfather. But by the time he was in high school, Jesus was bringing home literature from military recruiters. It was on a Tijuana trip to celebrate his high school graduation that Jesus bought the small Aztec warrior statue that symbolized his sense of himself. He chose one with the head of an eagle, because the bird is swift and precise -- and appears on the seals of both the United States and Mexico.
He was in Kuwait in late February when his father wrote to him. "Letter to my soldier son," the letter began. The impending war was "disastrous," he wrote. "I want you to remember above all else the moral values which you inherited from your Hispanic origin: respect for others, above all. Remember always and at all times, you are not an assassin. . . . Be tough, but not merciless. Never abuse the weak, it does not matter if it is your enemy. Be humane."
Five weeks later, his son was killed in action.
The government appears to recognize immigrants' role in the war. Last week, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services granted citizenship posthumously to two Marines who had been killed: Cpl. Jose A. Garibay, 21, who emigrated from Mexico to California as a baby, and Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, 28, who grew up an orphan in Guatemala, crossed illegally into California as a young man and became one of the war's first combat casualties, on its second day. A citizen after death, Gutierrez's remains, Guatemalan newspapers have said, will be sent to his sister, in his native land.
Washington Post researchers Lucy Shackelford and Margot Williams contributed to this report.