MADISON, Wis. - A Wisconsin Soldier formally became an American citizen in a ceremony thousands of miles away in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Luis Cortes-Avila of Oshkosh, Wis., a motor transport operator with the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 1157th Transportation Company, was only a month old when his parents moved to California from their native Mexico. Twenty-four years later, he is officially an American citizen.
His path to the Nov. 2 citizenship ceremony wound from Mexico to California, then Wisconsin, and finally to Afghanistan where he deployed with his Oshkosh, Wis.-based unit.
Cortes-Avila's family moved to Wisconsin when he was 11, where he met a friend who joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard after high school. After hearing stories from his friend's deployment to Iraq, Cortes-Avila decided to join as well.
"I just decided to join, because I didn't want to regret [not joining the military] later on, and I love driving. So I decided to go to a [transportation] school," he said during a phone interview from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Attaining his citizenship has been a long time coming. Cortes-Avila's parents began the process when he was still in high school. First his family had to officially establish residency; then came a waiting period before they could be considered for citizenship.
"I found out it was a quicker process when you are in the military," he said. "And since I already had my residency, I found out that I could do it here on post. So I decided I would just get that out of the way, so I wouldn't have to deal with it when I got back."
The 1157th left Wisconsin in February and arrived in Afghanistan in April. From then on, Cortes-Avila was hard at work studying for his citizenship exam. The questions were difficult, requiring him to reach back to lessons he learned in middle school civics classes.
"I created note cards, and I had different people from my platoon quiz me throughout times when we'd go to the motor pool," he said. "So it was really good to get the support from my platoon." Finally on Nov. 2, Cortes-Avila, 24, took the oath and became a U.S. citizen.
"To me it means a lot, because my parents gave up pretty much their lives for my brothers and myself to be able to come to the U.S. in order to have the freedom that citizens have here," he said. "It means a lot to me, because this is what their goal in life was. They wanted their kids to grow up having a choice to do what they want to do in life."
While Cortes-Avila acknowledged the irony of becoming a U.S. citizen in Afghanistan, perhaps just as ironic is what he plans to do with his citizenship.
Already a graduate of Marion University in Fond Du Lac, Wis., he plans to go into ministry once his unit returns home to Wisconsin in mid-January. He hopes to begin by joining the staff of a campus ministry organization at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, but he also aims to use his citizenship to travel outside the United States for ministry.
"Being a citizen opens up a lot of windows in being able to go to different countries," he said. "I think that's a big thing for me personally, just having the freedom to be able to do that."
Growing up watching his parents struggle to find meaningful work in America as non-U.S. citizens, Cortes-Avila has an appreciation for the freedoms he now enjoys as both a citizen and a veteran.
"It's a big freedom," he said. "It's a big relief just to know that I don't have to worry about that anymore or my children don't have to worry about that anymore. I'm really thankful."