JACKSONVILLE, Fla-- It's an odd circumstance that has two Florida Vietnam veterans happy to be U.S. citizens on this Memorial Day. First Coast News was there as Mario Hernandez of Tallahassee was sworn in as a US citizen last week. He had served in the army and lived in the United States for nearly five decades, but the Cuban born man says he had no idea he was not a citizen. A Jacksonville veteran came forward and told FCN that Hernandez is not alone.
"Here I am I fought a war for this country," said Don Van de Laar. "I already got spit on when I came home and called a baby killer. And here I am almost going through the same thing again because I am not an American."
Van de Laar served in the Vietnam war in 1970. He says the hardest part was coming home and feeling as if his country had turned its back on him. Again, in 2008 he says he got that same feeling when finding out he was not a citizen of the U.S.
"Naturally, when I was sworn in to defend this country like many other people I thought I was a citizen automatically," said Van de Laar.
He lived life under that assumption. Born in the Netherlands, Van de Laar came to the U.S at five years old and enlisted in the Navy at age 18. But after he moved to Jacksonville from Philadelphia he tried to get a driver's license and couldn't. He had no real proof that he was a citizen of this country.
"I was astonished when I first found out," said Van de Laar. "I was completely caught off guard."
Van de Laar says for years he lived a lie, even voting in major elections.
"Sometimes I thought I have the chance of getting deported here," said Van de Laar. "That crossed my mind."
Despite his fears in early 2008 he applied for his citizenship and by December of that year the proud Vietnam Veteran was officially sworn in.
But after seeing the story of Mario Hernandez, a man he's never met but feels bonded to, Van de Laar wonders how many others are also essentially living a lie.
"There are thousands easy," said Van de Laar. "There's no doubt in my mind especially from Vietnam."
Hernandez's attorney, Elizabeth Ricci says she recently received about eight calls from veterans in similar situations trying to gain their citizenship. She believes there are several hundred veterans across the U.S. who are also fighting to become citizens of a country they have bravely served.