HADITHA DAM, Iraq -- Lance Cpl. Chuk Choi has wanted to say “I’m an American” for almost 20 years.
Now, the 21 year-old from Yakima, Wash., finally can.
Choi, a food service specialist assigned to the Hawaii-based 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, known as “America’s Battalion,” became an American citizen during a citizenship ceremony Aug. 29, at Balad Air Force base in Iraq.
Choi returned to Haditha the same day he became a citizen to finish the final leg of his seven-month long deployment with his fellow Marines in 3rd Battalion, whom he deployed with to Afghanistan last year.
“I am proud to be a citizen of the country that liberated my ancestors in Korea many years ago,” said Choi, a week after becoming an American citizen. “Many brave warriors died to keep Korea free from communism and I would be glad to fight for America even if I could not become a citizen.”
Choi left Taegu, Korea, and came to the United States with his parents when he was only two years-old. For Choi and his parents, America was a “place of opportunity where everybody has equal rights regardless of their race.”
A year after he graduated from A.C. Paris High School in 2002, Choi decided he wanted to do something challenging with his life and did not want to end up like a lot of his peers who were using drugs and involved with criminal street gangs.
Choi started to research the branches of the military and initially planned to join the Army. Choi quickly changed his mind when he met a Marine Corps recruiter and learned that the Marine Corps was the “most disciplined and well trained branch of the American Armed Forces.”
“I was told all I needed to become one of the ‘few and the proud’ was a lot of heart and motivation,” said Choi. “My father was in the South Korean Marine Corps and I wanted to follow in his foot steps here in America.”
Choi left his family and his civilian life and began his four-year journey in the Marine Corps at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, Calif. Before he deployed to Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion his mother urged him to seek citizenship.
Although Choi wanted to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming an American citizen, he did not immediately begin the process to become a naturalized citizen.
Choi instead focused on bettering himself as a Marine and preparing for his first combat deployment in Afghanistan, where he served as a combat cook and was frequently exposed to enemy indirect fire.
“I feel I showed my dedication to my country when I went to Afghanistan as a non-citizen,” said Choi. “I found out in Afghanistan that I could get my citizenship request expedited, but I was more focused on completing the deployment and returning home.”
When Choi returned to Hawaii, he met his wife, April, 19, and was married in February 2006, only one month before he came to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Choi then began the paperwork process to submit for citizenship through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
According to Capt. Joshua Girton, the judge advocate assigned to 3rd Battalion, any service member on active duty can expedite their citizenship request through the USCIS on account of their military status, which could sometimes take more than five years for non-service member applicants. Service members are also exempt from paying the fees required to have their citizenship packages reviewed by the USCIS.
Choi’s paperwork was submitted and finalized by the USCIS during 3rd Battalion’s current deployment, permitting him to participate in the naturalization ceremony in August, said Girton, 30.
“These Marines who are serving and defending our country deserve to be citizens of it,” said Girton. “There are numerous Marines in the battalion that are beginning the expedited process to get their citizenship while they are here in Iraq.”
Cpl.Gustavo Serpa, 23, was born in Lima, Peru, and is currently serving as team leader in the battalion’s Lima Company in Barwana. Before coming to Iraq, Serpa said that although he wanted to become a citizen like Choi, he was more concerned with preparing and “leading his Marines to go into combat.” However, when Serpa returns to Hawaii, he said he will start the process of becoming a naturalized citizen.
Serpa is also a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Earlier this summer, Serpa was leading his Marines through a market place along the Euphrates River in Barwana when he was wounded by a sniper’s bullet. The Kevlar helmet he was wearing saved his life, he said.
As the date for Choi and the rest of the Marines in 3rd Battalion to return to Hawaii nears, Choi said he looks forward to leaving the Marine Corps active duty ranks next year and going to college to pursue a career in teaching high school students.
“I will be proud to say I served in the Marine Corps and brought honor to my family’s name,” said Choi. “And I am also proud to be an American.”