Honoring America’s Foreign-Born Soldiers

Five Stories of Bravery and Patriotism

Serving in the military has always been considered a patriotic and quintessentially American activity. And like so many things in America that have benefitted from immigration – from our cutting edge technology companies to our top-flight universities – our military owes much of its success to the contributions of the foreign-born. In fact, historically, one in five[1] recipients of the Medal of Honor, one of the most prestigious U.S. military medals, have been service members born abroad. Many famous military leaders were also immigrants: John Shalikashvili,[2] for example, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bill Clinton, was born in Poland.

Until the end of the Vietnam War, almost any immigrant physically present in the United States was eligible to join the U.S. military. Today, however, the military recruits from a much smaller pool of immigrants: With only rare exceptions for those with specialized medical or language skills, only immigrants with green cards or citizenship are eligible to join. Still, immigrants play a meaningful role defending America’s security. According to the Department of Defense, more than 65,000 – or 5 percent – of the U.S. active-duty military recruits currently serving as soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen were originally born elsewhere. And almost 4 percent of new military recruits in fiscal year 2012 were foreign-born.[3]

In honor of Memorial Day, this post highlights five immigrants who made the ultimate sacrifice. These soldiers all lost their lives fighting for America in the aftermath of September 11. While they hail from places as varied as Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean, each of these solders shares one thing in common: A patriotism and a dedication to their adopted country worthy of celebrating.

Specialist Francis Obaji [4] 


Born in Nigeria in 1983, Francis Obaji moved to the United States in 1996. As a young immigrant, he attended Erasmus High School in Brooklyn. A track star with an exemplary academic record, he went on to study microbiology at the College of  Staten Island, with the goal of going to medical school and becoming a doctor. One day in 2001, however,  the course of his life changed forever. Francis was waiting for the Staten Island Ferry in lower Manhattan  when the attacks of September 11 struck the world. After witnessing the horror of the attack from so close,  Francis immediately decided to join the military.

Throughout his training and deployment in Iraq, Francis never lost his optimism, and he was unstoppable  in his determination to defend his adopted country. Sadly, on January 16, 2005, Francis died in a vehicle  accident in Iraq. Francis Obaji stands out as an extraordinary soldier, and both childhood friends and  those who stood with him on the battlefield recognize what a positive, committed, and gifted individual he was. Francis Obajo may have been born abroad, but he exemplifies what it means to be a true American hero.

Sergeant Catalin Dima [5]


In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Catalin Dima also decided to join the U.S. Army. Born in Romania, Dima served in the Romanian Navy before moving to New York. Dima, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen while serving in Iraq, was killed on November 13, 2004, the same day he was promoted to sergeant.

At a ceremony to dedicate a new Armed Forces Reserve Center – named the Sgt. Catalin Dima Center – to Seregent Dima, both U.S. and Romanian officials remarked on Dima’s heroism. Furthermore, his widow Florika added, “As hard as his loss is for me and his children, I know he died doing what he loved. He was serving his country as a new citizen and wanted to be his best.”

Marine Staff Sergeant Riayan Tejeda [6], [7]


Riayan Tejada, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the Manhattan neighborhood of  Washington Heights as a child, always wanted to become a Marine. In fact, he was so committed to  becoming a Marine that he took afternoon and evening classes during high school in order to earn the  diploma he needed to join the corps immediately after high school graduation.

Riayan went on to become one of the best snipers in his regiment, and he served for eight years before he  was fatally shot in Iraq in 2003. At the time of his death, he was one of the approximately 31,000 men and  women on active-duty in the military who are legal residents of the United States but are not citizens.  Following his death, Tejada was granted posthumous U.S. citizenship. According to Riayan’s father Julio, who describes Riayan as both a son and a friend, “Riayan was an adoptive son of America, and he knew it was America that gave him the tools to be the man he turned out to be.”

Lance Corporal Saeed Jafarkhani-Torchizi Jr. [8] 


Saeed Jafarkhani-Torchizi Jr. joined the Marine Corps in 2003 with the honorable goal of helping both the  U.S. military and Iraqi citizens. Saeed had a personal connection to the Middle East – although his mother  was American, his father was Iranian, and he spent his early youth in Iran before moving to the United  States, where he became an avid fan of the Texas Rangers and set his sights on becoming a Fort Worth  police officer.

Saeed was tragically killed along with 30 other Marines in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2005. Before  he died, Saeed was able to fulfill his dream of helping the people of Iraq – he was on the front lines of the  Fallujah battlefield, working to secure the area for elections and bringing humanitarian aid and food to the local population. Although Saeed led a short life, he exemplified extraordinary nobility and commitment not only to the United States, but also to humanity.

Army Specialist Thai Vue [9]


Thai Vue was born in Thailand just a few years after his parents fled across the Mekong River to escape the  repressive communist government ascending in Laos. In 1983, they decided to move to the United States  in hopes of a brighter future. The Vue’s struggled to find work in America, and the 11-member extended  family was forced to share a two-bedroom apartment in the small town of Willows, California.

Despite his circumstances, Thai barely complained about his humble start in life. An athlete and  handyman, Thai’s grades slipped during his senior year, and he joined the army hoping to “get his life  straight.” The army gave Thai the direction and discipline he needed, and he was planning to leave the  military to join his long-time girlfriend Nancy and attend college in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, Thai was killed on June 18, 2004 in Baghdad, when a mortar round struck a motor pool where he was working. According to Thai’s brother, Thai’s parents were always proud of Thai because, “they knew when he came back home he’d bring honor to the family.”


[1] https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/ImmigrantVets-brief-5.pdf

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/us/24Shalikashvili.html

[3] Forthcoming report from the Partnership for a New American Economy and Margaret Stock, 2015

[4] http://www1.cuny.edu/mu/veterans/2006/08/09/spc-francis-c-obaji/

[5] http://www.midhudsonnews.com/News/2009/November09/23/Dima_center-23Nov09.html

[6] http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/memorial-day-sad-new-meaning-families-remember-soldiers-killed-iraq-article-1.675590

[7] http://thefallen.militarytimes.com/marine-staff-sgt-riayan-a-tejeda/256646

[8] http://freedomremembered.com/index.php/lance-cpl-saeed-jafarkhani-torshizi-jr/

[9] http://articles.latimes.com/2004/jun/27/local/me-vue27

Visit http://thefallen.militarytimes.com/ to learn more about the brave men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…