President witnesses California Marine's citizenship ceremony

24 Apr 2003 | Sgt. Joshua S. Higgins

"When President Bush gave me my citizenship and said, 'I'm very proud of you my fellow American,' I couldn't help but to cry," said Daly City, Calif., resident Lance Cpl. Oj John B. Santamaria.

The 21-year-old heavy machine gunner with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment received his U.S. citizenship from President George W. Bush April 11 at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he received medical care for an arm injury sustained during Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Santamaria was born in Athens, Greece, and raised in Manila, Philippines, by his mother, Rosalinda. Life on the islands was very enjoyable and laid back, Santamaria recalled, but at the age of 18, he was ready to explore the world.

In July 2000 he joined his father, Robert, a U.S. citizen for eight years, in Daly City and worked in fast food restaurants and retail stores for a year before setting out to fulfill a childhood dream of joining the military.

"All my life I really wanted to join the military," said Santamaria. "I asked around to find out which service was considered the best and toughest, and all my friends said the Marine Corps."

Not yet a U.S. citizen, Santamaria set off to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Calif., for basic training Oct. 23, 2001.

He said the tragic terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were even more of an incentive to hurry up and enlist as a U.S. Marine.

"After September 11, he was really enthusiastic about becoming a Marine," said his father. "He is the type to avoid a conflict if one occurred, but he is ready to stand up for his country at any given moment."

Fighting for the United States was a concept some may consider strange since Santamaria was not a U.S. citizen. 

"Becoming a citizen wasn't high on my list of priorities, but becoming a Marine was, especially after the attacks," he said. "I don't feel like I joined the Marine Corps only to protect the American people; I also joined to protect my family and their freedom."

After initial training, Santamaria was assigned to Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. He trained with his new unit for several months and was scheduled to attend a combined arms exercise at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., until the unit received orders to join the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Santamaria said he felt a sense of anticipation and excitement once deployed aboard the USS Saipan.

"I was anxious to get into Iraq and do my job as an infantryman," said Santamaria.

While in An Nasiriyah on March 24, Santamaria and his unit encountered what many consider one of the largest firefights throughout the operation. His gun team's mission was to provide security at a Euphrates River bridge so follow-on forces could cross safely, he said. Thirty minutes into the mission, snipers located in an Iraqi hospital began attacking the Marines. Santamaria's gun team quickly returned fire with its vehicle-mounted MK-19 40 mm machine gun. What happened next was something Santamaria anticipated, but hoped would not occur.

"I heard a loud explosion and my arm felt like it was ripped off," said Santamaria. "I jumped from the (vehicle) yelling I'd been hit and looking for a corpsman."

Shrapnel from a mortar round hit Santamaria in the arm and shattered his bones. When a corpsman finally noticed him, he had lost a lot of blood and was going into shock. The corpsman led him under the bridge, dressed his wounds and kept him from passing out until he was medically evacuated. Now in the United States receiving medical care, Santamaria has mixed emotions about being back.

"I understand I am hurt, but I would do anything to be back with my platoon," said Santamaria. "I've been having nightmares because I keep thinking about what they are going through over there."

General Michael W. Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, presented Santamaria with the Purple Heart for the injuries he incurred. Additionally, President Bush felt it was only fitting he receive his citizenship.

These Marines went overseas; risked their lives for peace, security and freedom; and they wore the uniform of the United States military, the president said during a visit to the National Naval Medical Center, according to an article released by Headquarters Marine Corps.

"(The first lady) and I got to see them sworn in as citizens. It was a very profound moment. We were both honored to witness this," said the president in the article.

Santamaria is continuing his recovery here at the Naval Hospital and said he plans to return home to Daly City during his convalescent leave, carrying with him the honor of being a citizen of the United States.

"I'm looking forward to going home for a while," he said. "It feels great to be called an American."