When Herta Lemons participates in the Veterans Day ceremony at the Chattanooga National Cemetery today, she’ll blend right in with the other Gold Star Mothers who have lost children in combat.
And that’s quite all right with her.
The German-born East Lake resident lost a son to war before he was even a citizen of the United States, and she doesn’t want that sacrifice viewed as any less patriotic than those of his native-born brethren.
Lance Cpl. Karl Ludwig Thompson didn’t join the service for benefits or for citizenship, Mrs. Lemons says. In fact, he did not become an American citizen until his mother received a certificate on his behalf in 2004, 38 years after his death in Vietnam.
“He wanted to be an American, and God knows he is,” she said, then quickly correcting herself: “He was.”
Bill Lemons, Mrs. Lemons’ husband, agrees wholeheartedly. As an American-born Army veteran himself, he said he knows how honorable Lance Cpl. Thompson’s sacrifice was. But he also wonders if post-9/11 legislation making it easier for military personnel to become naturalized citizens has corrupted that honor.
“People take America for granted,” he said, suggesting that military service could serve as an easy way for foreign-born service members to get U.S. benefits.
Jeanne Batalova, a demographer for the Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, says many Americans may have that view because very few people are educated about foreign-born military service, which historically has been rare.
Of the veterans honored for their service during today’s national holiday, she said, about 645,000 — less than 3 percent — are immigrants.
“We all hear about the children of immigrants and the immigrant workers from the point of view of who is contributing today to American society,” Ms. Batalova said. “But the population of immigrant veterans hasn’t really been on the radar.”
Their plight often is much more complicated than a hunt for citizenship during service or for benefits afterward, she said.
“I think it’s really a combination of factors,” she said. “It’s the allegiance to a new home country and an approach to become a citizen quicker.”
But those who receive citizenship through the military must be legal residents who could obtain citizenship through ordinary means anyway, Ms. Batalova said. Military contracts simply speed up the process and eliminate fees, she said.
Staff Sgt. Alain Espinosa, commander of the Marine recruiting station in Dalton, Ga., said citizenship is rarely, if ever, a consideration for new recruits — and he would know as a Cuban-born enlistee who completed the military naturalization process himself.
“I didn’t join for all those reasons people talk about, like the poor immigrant who needs money to go to college,” Staff Sgt. Espinosa said. “I just wanted to do something different than the average person.”
He said he’s not the only one with this mindset. Of more than 400 people his office has encountered so far this year, Staff Sgt. Espinosa can recall only one who asked a question related to citizenship. There’s something to be said for that in Dalton, he said, where close to half of the population is Hispanic.
Noberto Garcia of Sevierville, Tenn., did not have to join the military to obtain his citizenship at U.S. District Court in Chattanooga last month, according to his wife, Rebecca Garcia. But he insisted on joining the Army National Guard after filing his papers because he felt the need to give back, she said.
Mr. Garcia works full-time as an electrician and is studying to become an electrical engineer, Mrs. Garcia said. Having those opportunities “made my husband love this country so much that he is willing to put his life on the line to protect our freedom,” she said. “He felt in his heart that he owed his adopted country for all the opportunities he has found.”
It’s that kind of patriotism and pride that Lance Cpl. Thompson felt serving so many years ago, according to Mrs. Lemons.
“He was proud to wear that uniform,” the lance corporal’s mother said, “and he stood up for what he believed.”