Baghdad, Iraq- “Man, if I was born in the U.S. I never would have seen this!” exclaims PFC Andres Martinez after posing with the mural of Saddam Hussein on Camp Slayer in the Victory Base Complex. The story of PFC Martinez and his four fellow soldiers Edelberto Elias, Seguei Maspoch and Andrew Russell of the US ARMY 4th Division, 3rd Brigade 1/8 infantry begins on a dusty flight line on June 30 in Southern Iraq, while waiting on a Blackhawk helicopter where SSG Andrew Russell is sponsoring his three men. The men are all traveling to Baghdad for a grandiose ceremony in Al Faw Palace on July 4th, the headquarters of the United States Forces-Iraq, where they will be naturalized as United States citizens.
All four soldiers serve on Forward Operating Base GarryOwen which defines the term “middle of nowhere” and this trip to the Victory Base Complex (VBC) was more then just becoming well deserved American citizens in a lavish ceremony with the top brass in the theater. It was a chance to relax and enjoy the benefits of being on a very large and well appointed base like the VBC. The USO Baghdad met these men on that dusty flight line in Southern Iraq and decided that it was ‘mission critical’ to help these men make the most of their time up here in the capital city of Iraq.
Upon arrival in Baghdad on Sather Air Base, the simple task of giving them a ride across the VBC to their temporary housing turned into a 3 hour venture that included a pizza lunch and stops at the major landmarks of the former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, like the Victory Over America Palace and the Ba’ath Party Convention Center. Tired from the flight and stuffed on pizza and Monsters, the men were dropped off at their housing and rested for another day of their Baghdad adventure.
Second night in Baghdad, the USO Staff treated the men to a local Turkish restaurant that also shows World Cup soccer projected on the wall. We figured the fellas would appreciate the break from the routine meals served at the dining facility on GerryOwen, as they only just recently got a dining facility on their base. These guys have been eating ARMY issued MREs for months now, but on that night they were sitting under clear skies eating Chicken Tikka and wondering if they were still in the same country! The best part of the evening was enjoying some comforts of home and enjoying the drubbing of Mexico by Argentina. Into every life a little rain must fall, though, and it was tough going on the third night when SPC Martinez’ home nation of Chile took a epic beating at the hands of neighboring Brazil in the World Cup.
It was quickly back to business during the week leading up to the ceremony, which occured on Independence Day. The men had their citizenship interviews to prepare for and make sure their paperwork is all in good order, but when their meetings ended, the USO has some more fun and games planned for them. As it happens, the Sather Air Base USAF Civil Engineering Squadron was planning a farewell cookout at the only pool on the VBC on Saturday afternoon and gladly extended invites to the USO and our visitors. The location of the pool and cookout used to be the getaway for the upper echelon of Saddam’s Ba’ath party and now the area is open to every service member of the coalition forces.
Big day arrives and Seguei, Edelberto & Andres stand with 173 others and raise their right hand once again for this nation and when the hands come down they now belong to American Citizens. Years in wait and weeks to prepare for this event and it was over rather quick, all 3 of the fellas were happy but they admitted to feeling a lot more emotional then they thought they were going to. Edelberto likened it to getting married in that respect. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden were on hand to be apart of the ceremony that was run by USF-I commander Gen Ray Ordierno.
It was a life defining moment for the 3 soldiers but they also have work to do here and buddies to support on GarryOwen. All too soon they gathered at Sather Air Base for their flight back to Tallil. The USO Baghdad says “goodbye and good luck” to our good friends…and fellow U.S. Citizens