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Becoming a citizen: One Airman embraces America with her 'whole heart'

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- When one is born in a certain nation, it can be easy to take citizenship for granted; the person would know nothing else.

But moving to another country and consciously making the decision to become a citizen there ... well, that takes some careful consideration. For Senior Airman Renata Bernhard, it took almost eight years and joining the world's greatest air and space to realize that this was the country she wanted to call home.

In 1999, Renata Nava was a student at Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez in Juarez, Mexico, studying law. The city lies on the border with Texas, and members of her family had been relocating to El Paso for generations. But at the time, there was no reason for her to leave Mexico; she had family, friends and was three years into her degree program.

"There's nothing wrong with Mexico," she said. "If you're a hard worker and you go to school, you have the same opportunities as you have here in the United States."

That year, however, Cupid intervened. Her stepbrothers, Airmen in the U.S. Air Force, visited and brought with them a friend, the now Tech. Sgt. Eric Bernhard. They began dating, and though he visited her every weekend from Holloman AFB, N.M., she eventually visited him.

And then she saw those Air Force blues.

"The first time my husband took me to his base, I saw this Airman in his blues," Airman Bernhard said. "I thought it looked amazing ... he looked professional and sharp and I thought he was somebody special, just because he was wearing his blues."

Sergeant Bernhard explained that everyone in the Air Force, not just that Airman, wore the uniform and that looking professional and sharp was part of being in the service. That piqued her interest even more. Airman Bernhard knew then that she wanted to be in the U.S. Air Force, but thought since she was a citizen of Mexico, it would never happen.

A year later, Sergeant Bernhard received orders to Vandenberg and the two decided to get married. Renata left school and Mexico and moved with her new husband to California. As the years passed, she never gave up those thoughts of joining the service. While considering options on how to pay for an American college degree, Renata decided to make that dream a reality. In February 2006 she joined the U.S. Air Force.

"When I joined I was thinking, 'I'm a spouse already. I can do it,'" she said.

As she got settled into the role of being an Airman, something just didn't feel right, Airman Bernhard said. Here she was, a Mexican citizen, and she had sworn to fight for and protect the United States. Not only that, but the U.S. was growing on her. The people were friendly, her husband and her children were citizens. It began to feel like the time was right for her to become a citizen, too.

"I told my self if I'm going to do this, I have to do it the whole way, with my heart, too," Airman Bernhard said. "I didn't do it just because the Air Force required me to do it (because I could have done my four years and got out). I did it because I truly believe you have to do it all the way, not just on paper."

At first she was unsure about how long it would all take, and even where to begin. But she received help from the 30th Force Support Squadron and found out the citizenship process is free for military members. Also, military members receive help from their Military Personnel Flights and have an expedited process. What takes up to 10 years for civilians and five years for military spouses took her less than a year. She started the process in September 2007 and was sworn in as a U.S. citizen on July 12.

"It seemed to go quick," she said. "The Air Force helps you and saves you lots of money, too."

Becoming a citizen not only granted the rights that come along with it, she also was able to get a security clearance, which makes her eligible to reenlist after her four-year enlistment is done. The security clearance has also allowed her to move around in her career field as a CCA, as well as throughout the Air Force.

But it's more than a career move for this Airman.

"Everything I love is here: my husband is here, my kids are here," Airman Bernhard said. "Being in the service is like a dream, but as a U.S.A. citizen, I feel complete."