By CLYDE HABERMAN Published: September 18, 2007
On an August day when some Iraqi’s homemade bomb tore through him, Cpl. Juan Mariel Alcántara became an American. He never got to appreciate the honor.
A little-discussed detail of this war is that some of those fighting in it as soldiers of the United States are not American citizens. Over all, about 21,000 noncitizens are serving in this country’s armed forces, the Defense Department says.
Until death claimed him on Aug. 6, one of them was Corporal Alcántara of the United States Army.
He did not live long enough to acquire a richly textured biography. He was born in the Dominican Republic, reared in Washington Heights. He was 22 when the bomb — an improvised explosive device, in military-speak — ended his life and the lives of three fellow soldiers from the Second Infantry Division while they searched a house in Baquba, north of Baghdad.
At 22, Corporal Alcántara was old enough to have talked about going to college and maybe becoming a New York police officer, old enough to have a fiancée, old enough to have fathered a baby girl he never saw, Jaylani, 6 weeks old when he was killed. He was old enough, too, to have sought American citizenship.
Every year, thousands of noncitizen soldiers do that, through an accelerated naturalization process offered to those who put themselves in harm’s way so that the rest of us can go about our lives untouched by war. And every year, some of those soldiers become citizens only after they have literally been wrapped in the flag.