When Captain Florent “Flo” Groberg was awarded the Medal of Honor in November 2015 for his heroic actions in Afghanistan, I was privileged to attend the White House ceremony as Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
An Airborne Ranger qualified infantry officer, Groberg tackled a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, causing a second suicide bomber to detonate his device early. Three lives were lost, but Groberg’s actions saved many others — at great cost to himself. He lost half of his left calf muscle, suffered significant nerve damage, a blown eardrum and traumatic brain injury.
Groberg is an American hero. He is also an immigrant who was born in France and later became an American citizen. Of the 3,500 recipients of the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest honor for valor, more than 700 have been immigrants since it was first awarded in 1863. And immigrants are an important source of recruits for our all-volunteer military — a milestone that should be celebrated as part of the 50th anniversary of our all-volunteer force.
In recognition of Groberg’s incredible story, President George W. Bush painted his portrait and included it in his new book and exhibit, “Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants.”
Many immigrants like Groberg join the military because they see it as a path to U.S. citizenship. They come to the United States seeking a better life and the American dream, bringing with them a willingness to serve our nation. Their service makes our military more representative of our population — an important aspect for a democracy –—and more diverse, leading to greater innovation.
Many Americans don’t realize that what eventually became the Department of Veterans Affairs originated in part from a need to care for immigrant veterans after the Civil War. Almost half of the soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War were either immigrants or the sons of immigrants. They needed government support after the war because their family support was overseas. The services offered then were necessary, and they are necessary now.
It’s not just immigrants themselves that are important to our military, but their children and grandchildren.
My maternal grandparents were immigrants from Greece who met and married in Indianapolis. Because of their journey to America and contributions, I had the opportunity to attend and graduate from West Point and serve in the military. This opened a different world of experiences I would not otherwise have had.
As I traveled around the world as the CEO of The Procter & Gamble Company, at the time a Fortune 25 company, I would ask people, “what is your dream?” The answer was always the same, even though it was delivered in different languages and countries: “I want the next generation to have a better life than mine.” Military service in our country leads to that opportunity to have a better life, especially when it leads to citizenship.
The unique knowledge, skills and diversity immigrants bring also strengthens our military. That’s why we need to reform our immigration system in ways that recognize the importance of immigrants to our country and military.
This effort should be part of a much-needed comprehensive legislative reform of our immigration system. Policymakers can take some intermediate, concrete steps to improve immigration policy within the armed forces. Ones that ultimately recognizes that we live in an interconnected world, and interdependence is required to solve the world’s toughest problems.
First, Congress and the administration should update and reinstate Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, or MAVNI, a program that allows certain immigrants who hold critical language and medical skills to be admitted to the military and fast tracks their citizenship applications.
MAVNI, and the talent it brings our military, is one way to bolster military recruitment. More than 71 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are ineligible to serve because of a lack of education, a criminal history or obesity. This challenge in finding qualified recruits for our all-volunteer force directly affects our national security.
Second, Congress and the administration should reinstate the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative. This program provides resources and staff at military bases at home and abroad to help new noncitizen enlistees process their naturalization paperwork.
Finally, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service must find a way to clear the backlog that exists for servicemembers applying for citizenship as soon as is practical. These are individuals wanting to fully participate in American life but are unable to do so.
The U.S. government has left too many immigrants who choose to serve their adopted country in limbo. Groberg is one of thousands of immigrants who took the same oath as U.S citizens to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and our country should return this commitment by ensuring that they can naturalize quickly.
Robert McDonald is the April and Jay Graham fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, former United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and retired chairman, president and CEO of Procter & Gamble.
This piece has been updated.