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American by choice

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By Ken Begley

I wrote last week that I will be retired at the end of October after 42 years of active Army and Army Reserve service.  I am visiting high schools and colleges between now and then for the University of Kentucky Army ROTC Program.  I talk with parents, counselors and students about the Army in general and our Army ROTC program in particular.  So far I’ve been to all the high schools in 14 counties, as well as one college and two universities.  

Let me tell you, it is fascinating work.

Even after 42 years of service I still see things that amaze me.

Here are a couple.

I was up at UK last July. 

It’s a really cosmopolitan university with people from all around the world attending.  Some of the foreign students would come up and talk with me.  They were very friendly and seemed surprised at how approachable I was. They can’t join our ROTC program, but it was fun hearing how they ended up in Kentucky and their plans for the future.

After a long day I had a very petite young lady stop at my table who appeared to be oriental. I thought she was at the wrong place quite frankly.

But as she talked I could tell that she was a no-nonsense, tough and mature individual. Not disrespectful, but very determined.

We talked and I found out that she was an immigrant to this country from the Philippines. The Philippines is a poverty-stricken third world country where life is cheap. You have to be tough to live there.  She was brought to America by her parents and appreciates what we have here.  She came to love this country, realized what great opportunities a young person had here, and wanted to become a citizen.

How bad did she want to become a citizen?

She joined the Kentucky National Guard as an enlisted member and was then granted citizenship.

It was a small price to pay to her, maybe being called upon to risk her life, in order to become an American.

She was not content to merely enlist. She decided to go to college and now try for Army ROTC.

She wanted to become an officer in the greatest Army the world has ever known, to protect and defend what she knows personally from experience in her young life is the last best hope for the world.

The more I talked with her, the more I realized that she wasn’t some creampuff, either.

This young lady, now soldier, was tough.  You had to have been there to see how she carried herself.  Woe to the man that thought they could take advantage of her.  I’ve got a lot of experience and I can tell you that she would make an excellent officer.

I thought that was unusual.

It wasn’t.

In August, I was manning a recruitment table at Centre College.  I’ll tell you one thing.  Centre is the toughest college I know of in Kentucky.  They carefully vet their students before they come in the door and everyone must make their way through the equivalent of an academic boot camp to get their degree.  No free rides there.

It was at this table that a young Hispanic woman approached respectfully.  She came here from Nicaragua, in Central America, six years ago.  This is also a poverty-stricken third world country.

She had been in America only six years and she could not only speak Spanish fluently, but she could also speak English better than I could.

It was very impressive.

We talked, and again I found that she was brought to America by her parents.  She wanted citizenship so badly that she, too, joined the Kentucky National Guard.  

I was floored.  

Think about it.

Only here six years and she already knew the language, was gifted enough to be accepted at the most prestigious college in Kentucky and one of the most prestigious colleges in America today.

We talked about the ROTC program and I warned her about how tough Centre is. Centre seems to pride itself in not “giving” grades.  I think the average student coming out of the school will have a GPA of about 2.5 to 2.7.  At any other school it would be a 4.0.  Most of my cadets come out of Centre with about a 2.7 GPA.  I told her this so she wouldn’t be discouraged as the semester progressed.

She looked up at me with very determined eyes and said, “That won’t be me.” She, too, is going to put in for Army ROTC.  

We would be a fool not to take her in.

Sometimes our people lose their respect and appreciation for what this country has to offer.  Sometimes we lose our will to make sacrifices and the knowledge that hard work will help you obtain your destiny in life.  We come to think we are “entitled.”

Immigrants being their hopes and dreams to our nation and inject new vitality into our blood stream with their own.  We need that.

They are willing in the cases that I have related to give up their blood to protect our nation so we can live securely in our beds at night.

No, not all immigrants are like these two young women.  

But it is my firm belief that most are.

They are American by choice, and not by birth.

Sometimes that is more powerful than you can imagine.