HIDALGO COUNTY - "I decided to join the military when I was still in high school," said Manuel Espinoza, Former Marine.
Espinoza has always known what he wanted; he wanted to be a soldier.
"Graduated high school in 2000, two weeks later I was on a plane towards California for boot camp. I was supposed to go on summer vacation with my family, and I jumped the gun and didn't," said Espinoza
He smiles at the memory because what his family didn't understand then was that Espinoza would have done anything to be a soldier. Anything to service his country.
Espinoza was only overseas for a few months when 9/11 occurred. After that, he was the first to invade under Operation Enduring Freedom. In 2002, he fought in Afghanistan and in 2003 he fought in Iraq.
"On our way up to Anizuria, we ended up getting uh ambushed on all sides of the city. And we were taking indirect and direct fire from small arms, and RPGs to mortar bunkers, and machine gun bunkers and it is pretty much when chaos happened," said Espinoza. "A mortar round exploded about five to 8 feet in front of me and I took shrap metal to my right abdominal area."
It took almost a day before Espinoza could get out of the war zone. When surgeons finally reached him and started operating, Espinoza was close to death. Two months in a coma, and almost 20 surgeries later, Espinoza is back in the U.S. with his life and several battle scars.
Awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, Espinoza is considered a war hero. But it isn't medals Espinoza wants for his service, all he wants is to be on paper what he is in his heart. He wants to be an official American citizen.
"I think I was one when I came into the United States, and I have lived here ever since," said Espinoza.
At the age of 30, Espinoza knows no other country as home besides the USA. And since coming to the U.S. and serving, both his parents have gotten their citizenship. In fact, he is married to an American citizen and his children are American citizens. But Espinoza is not.
"I have tried four times to get my citizenship, but every time it gets denied for the fact that I need more paperwork that I need some other kind of documents," said Espinoza.
Espinoza isn't the norm, but he is one of several people that have served without citizenship. People who want the right to call this country their own.
"I wouldn't say that I see veterans in this situation all the time, but we do see them and we do hear of them as well," said Felix Rodriguez, Veterans Services Hidalgo County.
All persons who have served honorable in the Armed Forces are eligible for naturalization under the Immigration and Nationality Act. They just need to make sure they apply for the citizenship correctly and honestly.
"One of the things, and message that I would like to send out to all our veterans, and this is not the first time we have outreached to them, we have done this numerous times, is that our offices is available to advocate for the veterans," said Emilio De Los Santos, Veterans Services Director.
Veterans services said the easiest time to get citizenship is during service. Although it is still possible to obtain it once discharged too.
But after trying for almost 8 years, Espinoza is getting frustrated.
"That is something that is in the back of my head, that I could get deported and I wouldn't be able to come and see my family anymore. So I try to do everything as best as I can."
He served to protect his family, to protect the country he loves, and to protect the freedom of every American.
"America for me means freedom, to live my life the way I intend to, without anyone telling me otherwise; live my life for my family, for my friends to the best of my ability," said Espinoza.
But even with an honorable discharge, medals for sacrifice, courage, and valor, and of course, numerous battle scars, Espinoza is not an American on paper.
"A lot of people don't take the step, even though they are American citizens, they don't take the step to go ahead and join the military and defend what is theirs. I am not an American citizen and I still did it," said Espinoza.
Espinoza said he won't stop trying. He's even thinking about enlisting the help of a U.S. Congressman for a congressional inquiry. And like his determination to become a soldier, Espinoza will never stop pursuing the dream he fought so hard to protect.
If you are a veteran or current member of the Armed Forces and are seeking your citizenship. Call the Hidalgo County Veteran Services Office at (956) 318-2436 or (956) 292-7076.