Diego Fernando Rincon, 19, of Conyers, Ga, served with the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) in Iraq. On Feb. 22, he wrote his mother the following letter which she received on March 22.
How are you doing. Good I hope. I'm doing OK, I guess. I won't be able to write anymore starting the 28th of this month. We are moving out. We are already packed and ready to move to a tactical Alpha-Alpha (in Iraq). Once that happens, there will not be any mail sent out. We will only receive mail that is less than 12 ounces. At least that's what they said. I'm not sure where exactly we're going be at yet, but it is said to be a 20-hour drive in the Bradleys.
"Ser todo lo que puedes ser." ("Be all you can be.")
- Army recruiting tag line
So I guess the time has finally come for us to see what we are made of, who will crack when the stress level rises and who will be calm all the way through it. Only time will tell. We are at the peak of our training and it's time to put it to the test.
I just want to tell everybody how much you all mean to me and how much I love you all, Mother. I love you so much! I'm not going to give up! I'm living my life one day at a time, sitting here picturing home with a small tear in my eye, spending time with my brothers who will hold my life in their hands.
I try not to think of what may happen in the future, but I can't stand seeing it in my eyes. There's going to be murders, funerals and tears rolling down everybody's eyes. But the only thing I can say is, keep my head up and try to keep the faith and pray for better days. All this will pass. I believe God has a plan for me. Whether I make it or not, it's all part of the plan. It can't be changed, only completed.
Mother will be last word I'll say. Your face will be the last picture that goes through my eyes. I'm not trying to scare you, but it's reality. The time is here to see the plan laid out. And hopefully, I'll be at home in it. I don't know what I'm talking about or why I'm writing it down. Maybe I just want someone to know what goes through my head. It's probably not good keeping it all inside.
I just hope that you're proud of what I'm doing and have faith in my decisions. I will try hard and not give up. And I'm doing it all for you, mom. I love you.
Rincon died March 29 when a suicide bomber killed himself, Rincon and two other soldiers manning an Army checkpoint near Najaf, Iraq.
Diego Rincon gave the last full measure of devotion to the nation. He died a hero, but not a citizen.
The Columbian-born soldier, who came to America when he was five, was only one of the more than 31,000 noncitizens - from Albania to Zimbabwe - serving in the United States military. Seven of them, including Rincon, have made the supreme sacrifice during the war with Iraq for a land they were not born in, but for the country and people they had sworn to defend.
That immigrants help fill the ranks of America's military is nothing new. We are a nation of immigrants and their legacy is a part of the country's military history stretching from the Revolutionary War to the gates of Baghdad. Immigrants have served America with unflinching loyalty, devotion and bravery - a quarter of the Union Army during the Civil War was made up of immigrants, nearly 20 percent of Medal of Honor winners were foreign born, and during the Vietnam War, far more Canadians came south to fight for America than Americans went north to escape the draft.
Some noncitizens join out of patriotism, others to learn the language, still others because the military represents the chance for a better life. Whatever the reasons, the nation is a better and safer place because of their service.
But with that service should also come the right of citizenship. However, before last year, a noncitizen would have to serve three years in the military and meet the citizenship requirements, plus pay upwards of $1,000 in processing fees to obtain the piece of paper declaring, "I am an American." A July executive order by President Bush made all noncitizens who have served since Sept. 11, 2001 automatically eligible for naturalization. Some 5,000 military noncitizens applied for naturalization between July and February - a full 60 percent increase over the previous eight months, according to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
But the president's order did not jettison the fees or speed up the glacier-like speed with which applications are processed. However, as a matter of fairness, the fees need to be waived and the process further streamlined for those on active duty. If we ask the Diego Rincons of the nation to go out and fight our wars, then let them do so as Americans.
I'm not advocating a recruiting slogan of "Join the military and become a citizen." Illegal aliens and those with student or temporary work visas should continued to be banned from the military. Only those who are permanent legal residents should be allowed to join up.
However, citizenship shouldn't have to wait until a soldier's death to be presented to the family like the flag draped his coffin. It should come with the uniform.
And to those blustering, xenophobic know-nothings who keep ranting about the dangers of immigration: There's more than a small bit of irony that it's the sacrifices of the Diego Rincons of this nation that make the cause of freedom far more worth fighting for than words of hate spewed about in the guise of patriotism.
Diego Rincon was granted his U.S. citizenship Tuesday.
Chet Diestel is the Lodi News-Sentinels city editor. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.
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