From Panchkula and Maracay, to Central Pennsylvania: Two Soldiers’ Paths to Citizenship

By Capt. Ernest Wang | 316th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) | March 12, 2019

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. — U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers from the 223rd Transportation Company of Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, conducted drivers training and convoy operations in the snow-covered ranges of Fort Indiantown Gap this weekend.

Among the trainees – who navigated Humvees through inclines, declines, and man-deep mudholes – were Spc. Nirmaan Aggarwal and Spc. Nestor Ayala, both thousands of miles away from their respective hometowns of Panchkula, India, and Maracay, Venezuela.

“Panchkula lies in the foothills of the Himalayas,” said Aggarwal, 28, as he gathered snow from the foothills of the Appalachians. “It is beautiful, but extremely hot.” He lobbed snowballs at convoy vehicles to simulate hostile action. 

Aggarwal, a 92A automated logistical specialist, first saw snow in 2012 while in Chicago, where he obtained a master’s degree in data science at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He studied and worked in the U.S. for four years as a visa holder before joining the Army Reserve in 2016 through the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program. MAVNI previously recruited visa holders with critical skills, and selected Aggarwal for his ability to converse in three languages: Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu.

Basic training was rough, Aggarwal admitted. He entered the Army in poor shape and sustained a number of minor injuries. He pushed through the pain, however, out of fear that he would be medically discharged. He prevailed and became a citizen shortly after.

“I remember it felt so serendipitous,” said Aggarwal, who completed his path to citizenship in the single day between basic training graduation at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and AIT at Fort Lee, Virginia. In the few hours they had, his girlfriend drove him to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Raleigh-Durham Field Office, where the director saw Aggarwal in uniform and made sure that his papers were immediately processed.

“My throat filled up when I said the Oath [of Allegiance] because I was so overwhelmed. I pinched myself to know it was real,” said Aggarwal. 

Since 2016, Aggarwal has progressed quickly as a Soldier. He was a 92A advanced individual training honor graduate, and submitted his packet for officer candidate school just three days prior to arriving at Fort Indiantown Gap. 

“He’s a really good Soldier. I wish a had a few more of him,” said Staff Sgt. John O’Hara, Aggarwal’s first-line supervisor. “He’s always down to do whatever, doesn’t matter what it is.” 

According to O’Hara, who was directing convoys in ankle-deep mud, foreign-born Soldiers like Aggarwal rarely complain about adverse field conditions. “They’re very respectful and appreciative,” he said. He gestured to Spc. Ayala, a 91B wheeled vehicle mechanic, and added, “I mean, he’ll tell you stories of what he went through just to eat.”

Ayala, 31, came to the U.S. in 1999 when he was 11 years old. He arrived in Miami with his mother and two sisters. He said of his childhood in Venezuela, “It didn’t matter that you were 8 [years old] and your sister was 4. If you didn’t take care of each other you wouldn’t survive.”

Ayala’s family left Venezuela shortly after Hugo Chavez came to power. It was a period of economic turmoil and deep civil unrest. 

“You would come home from school and see people fighting,” said Ayala between iterations in the training lanes.

His grandmother and extended relatives remain in Venezuela. They have weathered the present political situation that has left money near worthless and resources scarce. 

“People are starving to death. They have to wait a whole day to enter the store, just to get a loaf of bread, milk and some eggs. Meats – chicken, beef, pork – are out of the question, and grains are hard to come by,” he said. 

Life in the U.S. was better for his family, but not always easy. Ayala remembers attending three different high schools within a year. Nevertheless, he said, “Here, you can go to bed and know you have something to eat the next day.”

Like with Aggarwal, Ayala’s recollection of his naturalization ceremony brought back strong emotions. There were approximately twenty Soldiers in his basic training battalion who became citizens, among them natives of the Dominican Republic, Ukraine, Lebanon, and Myanmar.

“At graduation they called us up and we got in front of the formation,” said Ayala. “I remember this colonel saying, ‘We all love this country and that’s why we fight for it. But these Soldiers came to this country and chose to fight for everything we believe in.’”

“It’s definitely been a great experience,” said Ayala about his service thus far. “In the military they recognize hard work. They recognize that it brings nothing but value.”

Aggarwal agreed and said of their unit, “I’m conscious of the color of my skin and my accent, but everyone here is so welcoming.”

They both attested that beyond a culture of acceptance and diversity, advancement is a priority at the 223rd TC.

“I’m going to do my 20 years,” said Aggarwal. He hopes to become a military intelligence officer in the Army Reserve, a military career that aligns with his civilian goal to become a government data scientist.

Ayala has plans to become a warrant officer. Additionally, he intends to use the educational benefits the Army Reserve affords its Soldiers to obtain a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He currently works as a contractor in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey region. He pointed out that he installed the epoxy floors here at Fort Indiantown Gap.

Foreign-born Soldiers have served in the U.S. Armed Forces since the days of the American Revolution. The organization Veterans for New Americans estimated in 2016 that over a half-million U.S. veterans were foreign-born, constituting approximately 3 percent of the total veteran population.

Aggarwal and Ayala are just two of many such Soldiers within their overarching organization, the 316th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), which has a history of seeing many foreign-born Soldiers become U.S. citizens. On November 7, 2007, the 316th ESC conducted what was then the largest naturalization ceremony in Iraq, when 178 foreign-born service members became citizens.

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff led them through the Oath of Allegiance. Chertoff said then, “I can't think of people who are more deserving of citizenship then those who are fighting to defend the country.”