Rafael Franco kept his hand on his heart and his eyes on the flag as he took the Oath of Citizenship.
The 20-year-old Cape Coral man emigrated with his family from Colombia to the United States 12 years ago, and plans to join the U.S. Air Force in hopes of becoming a fighter pilot.
On this windy Saturday, Franco, along with 26 others, officially became U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony that was part of the American Heroes Air Show at the Lee County Sports Complex in Fort Myers.
“It’s a life-changing situation,” Franco said after the ceremony. “I feel like I am part of the nation.”
Chris Rhatigan, a public affairs officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, pointed out that several of the newly naturalized American citizens, including Army Spc. Richard Andaluz of Brandon, currently serve in the armed forces.
“We help make their dreams come true,” Rhatigan said. “We take great pride in naturalizing people in the military. They’ve served this country honorably and the least we can do is help them become citizens.”
In addition to the naturalization ceremony, the American Heroes Air Show featured a traveling exhibit of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, more than a dozen helicopters from various military, law enforcement, government and health-care agencies, and attracted around 500 spectators.
Lee County sheriff’s Deputy Bryan Smith coordinated the event and said he was pleasantly surprised at both the good weather and crowd turnout.
Smith, who is a pilot with Sheriff’s Office Aviation Section, said the event was organized to honor the people who have served their country, celebrate the people taking the Oath of Citizenship and educate the public on the helicopter services provided by area law enforcement, health care and government agencies.
“People have a lot of questions about the aircraft they see flying overhead and in the news,” Smith said about the crowds milling around the helicopters parked in the baseball diamonds surrounding Hammond Stadium.
“This is really the only place to get the right answers. You get them directly from the people doing the work.”
Smith said the day’s event was “a lot of education under the careful guise of a fun afternoon.”
As the naturalization ceremony concluded and the new U.S. citizens hugged their friends and families and filtered away from the stage, Paulette Chernack of Port Charlotte taped a piece of paper to the replica Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and took a rubbing.
“I thought it was important to come down,” Chernack said, tearing up under her sunglasses and baseball cap. “Find some of our friends from a long time ago.”
Kaye Caple of Cape Coral and founder of Adopt-a-Troop Foundation – a charity that sends care packages to U.S. servicemen and women overseas – said including the memorial wall in the day’s event was important to raise awareness for Vietnam veterans for what they endured on the battlefield and on the homefront upon their return.
“It’s important that people realize the impact of the 58,253 names up there,” Caple said.
Looking at the 27 new U.S. citizens, Caple said she was happy they took the Oath of Citizenship in front of the memorial.
“All these guys fought for their freedom,” Caple said.