At 20 years old, Army Spc. Poe Hsee understands selfless service more than others. Born into the ethnic Karen minority in Burma (Myanmar), Hsee fled to Thailand before moving to the United States when he was 8. He knew nothing about the culture or how to speak much English, but today he’s on his way to achieving U.S. citizenship while stationed with the Oregon Army National Guard in Kosovo.
“I have always wanted to be a soldier,” Hsee told Army public affairs in August. “Growing up in a country in civil war and living through some hard times, I wanted to be the one to protect and fight for my family and my people.”
It’s been a long road, but Hsee is determined to see it through. Once Hsee and his family made it to Portland, Oregon, he worked hard to get his feet on the ground. By the time he enlisted, he felt American in all the ways that mattered. Unfortunately, during the Recruitment Sustainment Program, Hsee was sidelined for 16 months by a new federal guideline for the vetting process.
“To be a holdover due to my status was disappointing,” he admitted. “Going through basic training, all my friends were American and I was the only non-American. It kind of separated me from them and made me feel different, even though we were all going through the same thing.”
Still, Hsee persevered — and when he finally was able to enlist, he trained his sights on becoming a citizen. Since 2001, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has naturalized nearly 130,000 foreign-born military service members and maintains all manner of resources and staff within every military organization to help the process along. For Hsee, the perfect place to learn the process was at the local base legal office.
“When a guy like Hsee willingly gives up years of his life in service to the United States, it is only right that the United States gives him the privileges of citizenship." said 1st Lt. Ryan Adams, a judge advocate general for the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Oregon Army National Guard. “It's difficult to contrive a more uniquely American concept. Poe Hsee is one of us.”
Hsee began the process of naturalization in July. “I didn’t really know the process too well coming into this, and it’s been difficult trying to figure it out,” he said — a statement hundreds of thousands can relate to all too well. “Luckily, I have been working with Lt. Adams, who has been a lot of help.”
Adams has his own take on Hsee’s journey. “Cases like this are refreshing because everyone is a winner,” he said. “The United States gains a great citizen in Spc. Hsee, and he gains citizenship in the greatest country in the world.”
“I know [citizenship] will take time, but it’s worth it, because I will be able to do more in the military and become a firefighter,” Hsee said. “I know that I am part of this country and I want to contribute to it. It has offered me a lot and I want to give back. The best way to give back is to fight for it.”
Made possible with support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.