New York Daily News, Wednesday, July 9th 2008, 9:26 PM
With his combat medals on his chest, Vietnam War hero Rudy Thomas Sr., takes citizenship oath Wednesday at Brooklyn Federal Courthouse. This disabled Vietnam veteran paratrooper with three Purple Hearts is no longer a man without a country. Wednesday, 40 years after limping home from Vietnam, Rudy Thomas, 64, a Trinidadian immigrant, took the Oath of Citizenship in the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse.
Now he is an official American hero.
'For the last 40 years I thought of myself as a proud American,' Thomas was saying yesterday, waiting in the large courtroom on the 2nd floor with 250 new citizenship applicants from 40 countries to be sworn in by Federal Judge Nina Gershon.
'I came home. My discharge papers said I was an American citizen. For the past 30 years I worked as a counselor at the State Department of Veteran's Affairs. My first American-born son, Rudy Jr., became a New York City police officer. He was shot dead on the Fourth of July in 1993...'
When you fight in the uniform of the U.S. Army's Airborne and stain the soil of a foreign land with your blood and then lose a police officer son in the war back home you kinda think you've earned a place setting at the American table.
'When I was in Vietnam the only thing I ever thought about was going home,' he said. 'Home to me was not Trinidad, which I left when my grandparents brought me here when I was a little boy. Home was Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.'
And typical All-American Brooklynite that he is, Rudy Thomas saluted the flag as he buried his son, and got on with his heartbroken American life.
He sired two more, named Rudolph Pierre III, 13, and Isaiah, 10, and worked and paid taxes and never traveled anywhere outside of America again.
'A few years ago my grandfather died and I applied for my first passport to go back to Trinidad for the funeral,' he says, tapping his spit-shined shoes and adjusting his combat vest covered in battle medals.
'That day a clerk at the passport office told me that I was an illegal alien, that I was not a citizen of the U.S.A. I was crushed. Told him it was a mistake. That the Army told me back before they sent me to Vietnam the first time that the military had naturalized me as a citizen, allowing me to fight in a foreign war. I showed him my discharge papers that said I was a citizen...'
His passport was denied. He was the only member of his family unable to attend his grandfather's funeral. Rudy Thomas, with his three Purple Hearts earned in defense of an ungrateful nation, was marked down as an illegal.
Already walking with a limp from his war wounds, and officially disabled with post traumatic stress disorder, Thomas began the slow, agonizing battle with the federal bureaucracy, trying to win back his dignity in the skittery paranoia of post-9/11 America.
Everywhere he turned he was stung by friendly fire.
'It was like a third tour of 'Nam,' he says. 'First I fought for my country. Now I was fighting with my country.'
Thomas, part of a New York Vietnam Veteran's Exhibit still running at the Brooklyn Historical Society, reached out to organizer Phil Napoli, a history professor at Brooklyn College. Napoli suggested Thomas contact this reporter. When he did. Rudy Thomas told his story in this space on June 5.
By 10 a.m. that day Sen. Chuck Schumer's office took up Rudy Thomas's cause and expedited a clear path through the bureaucratic jungle to yesterday's swearing in.
'I want to thank Professor Napoli and the Daily News and Senator Schumer who got me here today,' Thomas said yesterday.
'There was a point when I was starting to give up hope. I was afraid I was going to be deported by the country I fought for. I could hardly sleep last night in fear that I wouldn't be here on time this morning.'
But here he was in the courtroom yesterday, sitting with Napoli, and fellow 173 Airborne Vietnam vet Lucian Vecchio, himself a federal administrative judge, and Rudy's two proud sons sitting across the room when Judge Gershon climbed the steps to the bench.
Everyone in the room rose.
'Welcome new citizens,' Judge Gershon said. 'This is a very happy day for all the families here today. But first I want to say we do have a military veteran taking the oath today.' She motioned for a startled Rudy Thomas to stand, which he did with the help of his cane. 'Mr. Rudy Thomas was awarded three Purple Hearts in his service in Vietnam and today we are delighted to
welcome you to citizenship and we thank you for your service.'
A tear escaped down Rudy Thomas's face as the entire room of newly minted American citizens exploded in applause.
'I wish my son Rudy were here for this,' Thomas said.
'Believe me, he is,' said fellow vet Vecchio, giving him a comrade-in-arms hug.
'A grown man isn't supposed to cry,' said Thomas, wiping his eyes.
'If you've been to 'Nam he does,' said Vecchio.
THEN the ceremony was over, he was given his certificate of naturalization #30435522 and he was surrounded by friends and family, and other beaming new Americans lining up to shake his hand.
And then Rudy Thomas went home with his kids, at long last an official American hero.