Story by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Jiang
PACIFIC OCEAN – It’s a classic American tale, immigrants coming from foreign shores to the United States in search of a better life. It’s not just something learned about in history class or seen in movies, it’s something that happens every day, even aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).
Since the events of September 11, 2001, there’s been an increased effort to expand citizenship benefits to non-citizens serving in the military. President George W. Bush signed an executive order in 2002 making non-citizen service members immediately eligible for citizenship.
Culinary Specialist Seaman Vans Saret and Personnel Specialist Seaman Wen Hao Tong weren’t U.S. citizens before joining the Navy. They were born in other countries and came to the United States under different circumstances in search of their own American dream.
Tong was born and raised amid the eclectic mix of skyscrapers and traditional red tiled buildings that make up the seaside city of Qingdao, China. After high school he decided to go to college in the United States.
“It was pretty difficult in the very beginning,” said Tong. “I had no friends, and everything was brand new.”
The plan was simple at first. Study in the U.S., get a degree and either work for an American company or go back to China.
“Things changed, obviously,” said Tong.
Back in China, it had never crossed his mind to join the military. That wasn’t the case after his first time seeing a service member in person, a uniformed soldier on his college campus. Whether it was a recruiter or an ROTC student he doesn’t remember, but it left an impression on him.
“Everything about them, their performance, the way the carried themselves, was very professional,” said Tong.
He would’ve joined right away, but at the urging of his mother, he finished college before he made his final decision. Tong’s mind, however, was already made up. For him, there were things he felt that he could learn in the military that he couldn’t at school.
While Tong was now living in a different country and was doing his college course work in another language, he ended up staying in his comfort zone and made primarily Chinese American friends. Joining the military would give him more opportunities to broaden his horizon.
“I’m living in the United States now so I should learn about the culture and the people,” said Tong.
In 2013 Tong graduated from the University of Buffalo with a Bachelor’s in economics and he went to boot camp the following year.
Saret grew up in the Philippines, in the hot, humid suburbs of San Pedro, just an hour away from the capital, Manilla.
“Growing up in the Philippines was very hard for me,” said Saret. “There was very little support for me when I was a kid, but my parents fought through all of their hardships to give me and my brother a better life.”
In the summer of 2002, when he was only 8 years old, Saret’s family moved to San Francisco at the urging of relatives.
The young Saret was delighted to come to America. His grandfather, a former U.S. soldier and a Vietnam veteran, had told him stories of his experiences there. Now Saret had the chance to see for himself.
“It was another adventure for me,” said Saret. “Everyone was really diverse, everyone was really different. I got to meet different people from different areas and learn about their cultures.”
But the transition to a new life in a foreign land didn’t go smoothly for his family. In the Philippines his father was a policeman and his mother stayed at home. In the U.S. his father had difficulty finding work due to a language barrier and his mother worked two jobs to support the family.
In 2007 his mother had an accident that put her into a coma for two years, taking Saret back to the Philippines at the start of his high school years. She passed away during Christmas of 2009.
Things didn’t get any easier from there. Saret moved around a lot, from the Philippines to Guam and finally back to the United States, all while dealing with family issues and his own grief. The Navy would provide him with a much needed source of stability.
“I wanted to do something good and change my life,” said Saret.
Joining the military wasn’t a spur of the moment thing. Part of him had always wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.
Saret went to boot camp in February 2014.
In 2009 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services established the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative, which gives noncitizen, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps enlistees the opportunity to naturalize after graduating basic training.
Saret and Tong’s boot camp naturalization process included the recording of their biometrics, an interview that tested their knowledge of the U.S. government and history, and swearing the Oath of Allegiance to the constitution.
“I was happy and proud that my hard work paid off,” said Tong.
Saret swore his oath in A School.
“It was a really big deal,” said Saret. “I was an immigrant for 12 years before I joined the Navy.”
Service members may have plenty of reasons for joining the military, whether it’s a sense of duty, family tradition or even for personal benefit. Whatever the reason, everyone who joins is making a pledge to protect and serve their country. Wen Hao Tong and Vans Saret made that pledge for the U.S. before they could officially call it their home.
Since 2002, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has naturalized over 102,000 service members.