MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Mexican newspapers inadvertently planted a seed in a small boy, born in 1960 in the town of Cananea, Mexico, not far from the Arizona border.
“In the newspapers in Mexico, they are more graphic than they are here,” said Guadalupe Denogean, a retired master gunnery sergeant. “I couldn’t read, but I could see the pictures.”
So he would ask his brother to read the stories to him, and they were always about the Marines, he said.
As that seed sprouted, Denogean, who moved to the U.S. but was not a legal citizen, chose to join the Marine Corps, fight for and defend the freedom of the United States.
“It was something that was planted way back, and as soon as I turned 17, I signed up,” he said.
During his time as a Marine, he also planted a seed for a simpler immigration process to be used in the military.
As Denogean lay in the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., in 2003 from injuries suffered in Iraq, President George Bush, along with several high-ranking officers in the military, came to meet injured service members. The president asked each of them what they would like to see done in the military, said Denogean.
When it was Denogean’s turn, he said he wanted one of his Marines meritoriously promoted for pulling him out of a burning vehicle in Iraq, and he also asked to become a citizen.
The next day, his Marine received a promotion, and three days later, with 25 years of military service, Denogean became a U.S. citizen.
“It used to take two to three years to become a citizen,” he said. “The problem was every time you went to a new station, you submit an application, and you also had to pay the fees. If they called you up and you moved, you lost your money.”
He brought the military’s attention to the current immigration process, and shortly after they began working on ways to improve it.
“I don’t want to say I was the reason, but they didn’t realize what we were going through and why we were not citizens,” he explained. “I was in Desert Storm and I was in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and I guess he [Bush] was impressed. We were in two wars, and we were not citizens. Why are we doing it? For the love of freedom.”
Thanks to the effort of Denogean and service members like him, today, it only takes a service member four to six months to complete their request for U.S. citizenship.
Denogean and his family immigrated to the United States in 1966. Growing up in Nogales, Ariz., he learned English through school but was unable to speak fluently before enlisting in the Marines when he turned 17. Without a full grasp of the English language, he faced many difficulties communicating in Boot Camp.
Even the most basic neccessities were hard to accomplish because of the language barrier, he said.
Regardless of not being a U.S. citizen, Denogean fought for Americans and their ideals — he knew someone had to pay the price for freedom.
“I enjoyed the freedoms that were offered to me and my family,” said Denogean. “For everything you do, there has to be a sacrifice. You have to pay the dues — somebody does.”
He also has a sister, Yolanda Colter, who’s been in the Air Force for more than 28 years.
“Between the two of us, we have paid the dues for our family,” he said.
“Freedom is not free,” is a phrase heard often on radio and television and written across car bumper stickers, but this phrase means more to those who weren’t handed freedom, but had to earn it.
“If I give you a car, you’re going to drive it and trash it. If you buy the car and you pay for it, you’ll take care of it. It’s no different with the United States. If it’s just given to you, you’ll take it for granted, but if you pay for it, you’ll understand what it’s all about and you’ll cherish the freedoms that we have,” he said.
While Denogean may not have directly influenced the creation of the easier immigration process the military uses today, his request to President Bush for citizenship certainly sparked an interest in improving it.