Bush’s signature was attached to what is formally entitled the “21st Century Department of Justice Appropriations Authorization Act.”
It was one of several bills signed during a one-day presidential campaign swing that took in three states. But in another sense it was also a day that encompassed a distant country, a brutal war and 50 years of troubled memories.
Buried in the Justice Department bill was the key to U.S. citizenship for close to 30 young Irishmen who gave their lives while fighting the Korean War in U.S. uniforms.
The Posthumous Citizenship Restoration Act of 2002, initially a separate item of legislation, was added to the Justice appropriations bill as it recently made its way through Congress.
In the last month, the omnibus bill was approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Last Saturday it was aboard Air Force One awaiting the signature of the commander in chief in another time of war.
The president’s signature on the bill will result in the opening of the route to citizenship, not just for the Irish dead of Korea, but those of all nationalities who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the 1950-53 Korean conflict and other wars.
The campaign for citizenship, was, however, inspired by the failure to properly honor the dead Irish-born soldiers, or accord them the full military honors that normally apply to American citizen soldiers.
Twenty eight Irish dead from Korea are presently listed on a website (www.irishinkorea.org) dedicated to their memory and the campaign to secure U.S. citizenship for them.
One of the 28 is Michael Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick came to Chicago from Claremorris, Co. Mayo, in 1947. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in December 1950, trained as a medic and assigned to the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.
Fitzpatrick was killed in action in August 1951 but when his remains were shipped back go Chicago he was not given a military funeral due to his lack of citizenship. A lone officer attended the funeral, saluted and left.
The minimal recognition of Fitzpatrick’s service and death on behalf of his adopted country infuriated Fitzpatrick’s sister. And it continued to trouble Mary Doody for more than 50 years.
“In the beginning it seemed that nobody was interested,” Doody, who still lives in Chicago, said after hearing of the president’s signing of the bill. “But as long as it’s signed, it counts. I never thought it would happen and it’s kind of hard to believe. But if you wish and pray hard enough, it will happen.”
Making it happen was something of a military campaign in itself. The effort to secure posthumous citizenship has been a long march lasting more than 25 years.
Leading it has been Kerry native and Korea War veteran John Leahy.
In the last couple of years the campaign gathered pace and support from political representatives from both parties in several states and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The House posthumous citizenship bill was drawn up by Massachusetts Reps. Martin Meehan, James McGovern and Barney Frank, and Vito Fossella of New York.
“I’m thrilled for the families who will be able to seek honorary U.S. citizenship for their deceased relatives,” Meehan said after passage of the bill through the House. “These soldiers were real patriots and adopted America as their home to honor and defend. This legislation will help fulfill their dreams of U.S. citizenship.
The subsequently successful Senate version was penned by New York’s Sen. Chuck Schumer and co-sponsored by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
Leahy said that the signing of the citizenship bill into law would now necessitate a coordinated effort to deal with the expected necessary paperwork. He said that a separate effort to secure a monument at Arlington National Cemetery with the names of the Korea Irish dead inscribed on it would now be given fresh impetus.
The Irish could be so honored at Arlington because they would now be American citizens, Leahy explained.