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By Sgt. Sarah Fiocco
BY STEVE LEVIN Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Indian national Cpl. Jasdeep Singh graduated from Ridgeview High School in 2010, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and by 2012 found himself in Afghanistan serving with Combat Logistics Battalion 5, Ist Marine Logistics Group.
Federal law allows non-U.S. citizens to serve in the military but prohibits them from becoming commissioned or warrant officers.
That's not what bothered Singh, though, a native of Amritsar, in Punjab state, where generations of his family had worked as farmers. He was 4 1/2 when his family emigrated in 1996 to California where he entered a Merced County kindergarten without English skills and wearing a turban like nearly all Sikhs.
What bothered him was that now he was 20 years old in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province at Camp Dwyer, then one of the largest Marine bases in the country, a U.S. Marine defending American interests -- but he wasn't an American citizen.
"It's more mental than anything else," Singh said recently from his stateside posting in Camp Pendleton, recalling his feelings.
"You're here. You know you belong. It's just like there's a feeling that you don't. You feel like you don't belong."
So when a captain asked him if he was interested in gaining citizenship under special provisions provided for in the Immigration and Nationality Act, he of course said yes.
In June 2012, with his paperwork complete, he joined several dozen Marines and Army troops in Kandahar for a three-day citizenship session. After two days of prepping, Singh was brought in for an interview with a single officer to answer 10 questions.
"I had been in the U.S. so long they were pretty easy," Singh said, remembering one as asking which two countries border the U.S. "During the process, honestly, I was a little nervous. But during the interview not at all."
He answered all 10 questions correctly.
Afterward, the captain "gave me a handshake and said, 'Good job. Go do greater things in life.'"
Singh was an American citizen.
The captain treated all the new Americans in a typically American way: a celebration at the now-closed TGI Fridays at the Kandahar Air Force Base.
Singh was one of 509 service members during fiscal year 2012 to be naturalized while abroad, and 8,693 service members who gained citizenship either abroad or while stationed in the U.S.
Between fiscal years 2002 and 2013, more than 10,700 service members were naturalized while serving overseas.
Singh's story wasn't publicized by the Marine Corps until February.
Both his mother, Pawinder, and father, Ranjit, who live in Bakersfield, also are naturalized Americans.
The family decided to leave India, Pawinder said, because through the early 1990s Punjab state, the traditional home of the country's Sikh population, was in the midst of conflict. Militant efforts to create a Punjabi country called Khalistan were dealt with harshly by Indian national forces.
"It was about the safety of the children," Pawinder said about the family's journey to America. "There were a lot of problems in India, a lot of worries, a lot of stress.
"There was peace here and a chance to be successful. Here, the only problem is you just need work and then you're pretty good."
Her husband is a long-haul trucker.
When the family first arrived in the U.S., the elder Singh gave up the traditional Sikh turban and the prohibition against shaving and cutting hair. Everyone in the family, however, including younger brothers Pardeep, 20, and Tarandeep, 15, still wear karas, a steel or iron bangle, on their wrists as one of the articles of faith.
While a majority of Jasdeep's relatives remain in India, and while he has never visited his homeland, he still tries to maintain the culture of his family by attending temple.
He's an American, now, but his roots are important.
"That's something that's built into you," he said. "The moment you let it go you quit. I plan to pass on the same traditions to my children."