When I first arrived in the U.S. in 2011, I was impressed by Americans welcoming and clapping for soldiers in uniform. I had never seen such respect towards military personnel growing up in South Korea. Military service is mandatory under Korean law, and I believe that’s why soldiers are not appreciated as they should be. There are even times I saw people looking down on soldiers in uniform. Seeing U.S. troops honored by the public was inspiring and reaffirmed my dream to become an Army Officer.
However, it hasn’t been easy for me to join the U.S. military. My dream of becoming an American military officer was nearly impossible as a foreign national student. As a legal resident and a foreign national, I was without a clear path to my dream. I felt lost and frustrated until I found the Military Accession Vital to National Interest program (MAVNI), created during President George W. Bush’s administration. This program opened the door to my dream of becoming a U.S. Army Officer.
By January 2015, I started talking to local recruiters about the MAVNI program with excitement. While I expected to join the Army upon my high school graduation, the process took longer than expected and I went to Boston University for further education. I also looked into the ROTC program at my university, but I was told that I was not qualified without citizenship. There have been many times that I was frustrated and thought of giving up. But, I didn’t want to lose this opportunity, nor my dream.
At last, I signed the contract with the U.S. Army in October 2015 to become an enlisted soldier. I’m a first-generation immigrant and the first member of my family who joined military service voluntarily. The contract was life-changing and the best decision I have ever made. It not only provided an opportunity to serve the country that I belong to but also provided various opportunities and benefits to enrich my education and support my family.
Military Accession Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) was developed in the Department of Defense to recruit talented legal residents into military service. Often, these recruits bring critical language skills and comprehensive cultural knowledge to assist military missions overseas. Through the MAVNI program, a service member is granted an opportunity for early citizenship to recognize their contribution to our forces. Since 2009, about 10,400 service members have joined the military through this program. Historically, there have been non-citizens serving in the military since the Revolutionary War, and this program will continue the long legacy.
Problems followed by the rapid growth of the MAVNI program. Recruiting foreign nationals requires strict background checks, and there have been many future servicemembers that have fallen into limbo with a series of investigations. Often recruits need security clearances that are equivalent to top-secret status which can take months or years to be completed. Many times, recruits believed they would go to training with the original dates they were told, suspending their job and school activities to accommodate the training schedule.
However, their training schedule continued to be delayed as the investigations dragged on, and without their jobs and school, some recruits lost their legal status to stay in the U.S. In other cases, soldiers headed to basic training without getting a security clearance, and they were held at the training facility until they receive a proper security clearance. With never-ending security clearance struggles and loss of legal status, recruits that once took the oath to serve in the military are now facing the danger of deportation, and feel betrayed by the U.S. government.
MAVNI is colloquially known as the “American Dream Comes True” program because it affords the opportunity for any person determined and willing to serve this country to join the military and become a legal citizen of the United States of America. MAVNI also brings a talented and diverse pool of recruits to the military. A prime example of MANVI’s contributions to the military can be seen in SGT Saral K. Shrestha who joined the Army in 2009 through the MAVNI program. With his unique languages skills, he was recruited to be part of Special Forces, and later won the best warrior of the year competition.
When servicemembers take the oath to serve, they are making a commitment and showing a willingness to lay down their life for the United States. That commitment is the same whether a citizen or legal resident. It is imperative to take care of all servicemembers, no matter where they are from, by providing clear timelines and expectations of service. Above all, legal resident who are dedicated to serve this country should never face the risk of deportation. This is the least we can do for the sacrifice they made.
Learning the Welcoming Community
During an interview with Melissa, our Chief Policy Officer, I was surprised by the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) is aware and supportive of the issues MAVNI soldiers are facing. In the latest survey, 93% of IAVA members agreed that military service should serve as a way to expedite the pathway to U.S. citizenship.
There have been numerous times that I had to explain what MAVNI is, and even then, not many people could understand. Time after time, I was discouraged and started to avoid talking about my story. However, learning about this community that can understand and share my position, I felt more confident about sharing my story and am excited to be part of this welcoming community.
Looking for Bright Future
Because of the MAVNI program, I was able to come so far. As a current junior at Boston University and Army reserve soldier, I continue to follow my dream path to become an Army Officer through the ROTC program. I am proud of my service, and that continues to grow as I find there are so many supportive communities and programs that IAVA has shown me. As former Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning said, “America’s diversity is our Army’s strength,” and I believe that U.S. Army will be the strongest force in the world with its diverse soldiers.