x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fighting in Afghanistan puts Filipinos on fast track to US citizenship

Roughly 9,000 immigrants join the US armed forces each year from countries as far apart as Panama, Nigeria, Liberia and Turkey and in the past 10 years, nearly 69,000 immigrant troops have become US citizens while serving.

Darby Ortego, right, 25, and Von Bolante, left, both fighting for the United States army in Afghanistan. Both are from the Philippines, and have taken the military path to US citizenship. Ted Aljibe / AFP Photo
Darby Ortego, right, 25, and Von Bolante, left, both fighting for the United States army in Afghanistan. Both are from the Philippines, and have taken the military path to US citizenship. Ted Aljibe / AFP Photo

KHOST // Private Darby Ortego, 25, endures gunfire and mine attacks fighting for the US army in Afghanistan, but today will be his first US Independence Day as a citizen of the country he serves.

Private Ortego, who battles insurgents in the violent eastern province of Khost with Bravo Company, 1-26 Infantry, recently attended a naturalisation ceremony at a US base near Kabul ahead of this year's Independence Day celebrations.

Like thousands of fellow Filipinos, he sees the US military as a fast-track to American citizenship, securing his own future and also helping his family back home.

"I joined up to get my mom to America," said Private Ortego, who is deployed at Combat Outpost Sabari in Khost, where US troops clash with Taliban rebels based across the border in Pakistan.

"I want to bring my mom from her village in the Philippines to [the US state of] Nevada, where I live. I want her to be with me."

Private Ortego is one of the roughly 9,000 legal immigrants who join the US armed forces each year from countries as far apart as Panama, Nigeria, Liberia and Turkey.

He has permanent residency in the US and was living with his divorced father in Nevada when he signed up two years ago.

Other benefits to military service include a free college education, which Private Ortego says he hopes to use to study business management.

There are around 25,000 non-US citizens serving in the military, the Pentagon says.

Non-citizens have fought for the US since the 18th century War of Independence, while the US officially started recruiting Filipinos after the Second World War when it opened military bases in the Philippines.

After the September 11 attacks, the naturalisation process for military personnel was streamlined when President George W Bush scrapped waiting requirements for active soldiers.

In the past 10 years, nearly 69,000 immigrant troops have become US citizens while serving.

Naturalisation takes just months for serving military personnel compared to years for regular legal immigrants.

Unemployment and poverty in their homeland have driven millions of Filipinos abroad to search for work.

"It is better in the US because there are more opportunities. You can find a job and they will pay a decent amount," said Private Ortego, who sends money back to his family in Northern Samar province.

But the sacrifices he now has to make for himself and his mother are significant.

"Army life is tough, this is a stressful environment," he said. "There are bad days here, IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and small arms fire.

"My mom is scared for me. It is a mother's thing. She misses me a lot, I've only seen her briefly once in the last two years when she stopped overnight in Los Angeles just to say hi. I keep telling her, when I get citizenship, you guys are going to be in the US with me."