Before 9/11, Burma native Than Naing served fast food. Ever since the terror attacks, he's served the United States.
Spurred into action in 2001 by the sight of the World Trade Center towers falling, Naing overcame daunting odds to become a Marine and has since been wounded fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan and earned the elite fighting corps' Marine of the Year award. He became a citizen in 2007, recently earned his college degree and is working toward his next one, all while proudly serving in the military and earning the admiration of his commanding officers.
“I’m a U.S. citizen and I felt like I needed to do something for this country,” the soft-spoken war veteran said. “That’s what being a citizen is all about.”
Naing was 23 when his mother won a green card lottery. Although she and the rest of the family stayed behind, Naing sprang at the chance to start a new life in America.
Speaking no English and knowing no one, he moved to New York City in 2000. He was working at a Queens McDonald's when Al Qaeda terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, and he felt the pain and anger of his fellow New Yorkers. He asked neighbors how he could fight for America, and they told him to join the Marines.
“I went to a recruiting station a week later to join,” he said. “I saw what happened on the television and I felt terrible. I had to help. I had to do something.”
The Marines weren't ready for their newest volunteer, because he wasn't fluent in English. But the recruiter saw something in the earnest immigrant and agreed to help him learn the language skills he needed to pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. Working nightly for an entire year, they got Naing through the exam. By May 2004, Naing shipped out for boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina.
Pfc. Naing soon found himself in Iraq, patrolling the streets of Fallujah. It was there that he learned in 2006 that his mother had died. Believing he was needed on duty, he didn't even tell his commanding officers.
In his own words
As a citizen of the United States of America, I believe that I have a responsibility to protect the country. I have freedom of choice; I have responsibility for my individual freedom and we are equal in the America. I remember that when 9/11 happened; I was not a citizen yet. But this is the country I live in and I realized that I had to do something for this country to repay what I owed. So I decided to join the Marine Corps. I felt that that was a right thing to do. America not only gives me freedom but also my dignity.
All the Marines and sailors are my brothers. We all been through all the training and hardship. We protect each other and we respect each other. We came from different backgrounds and different families, but we love each other.
The United States Marine Corps gave me leadership skills, experience and the ability to make difficult decisions in stressful situations. I like to say I was "born in Burma, but made in U.S.A."
“I felt bad, like I should go back to Burma to see my mom," Naing remembered. "At the same time, I was in Fallujah in war with my friends, and I didn’t want to leave them behind.”
Several months later, during the height of the insurgency, Naing was shot in the left shoulder and pulled out of duty. He was sent home to Camp Lejune, where he was assigned to the Injured Support Unit at the Wounded Warrior Barracks. While there, Naing mentored junior Marines and studied for his associate degree, and received the Marine of the Year award at Wounded Warrior Battalion-East at Camp Lejeune.
"He leads by example and inspiration," said Maj. Paul Greenberg, executive officer for Wounded Warrior Battalion-East. "The thing that most impresses me about Sgt. Naing are his genuine humility and his desire to pursue all the positive things that life has to offer."
After two years of rehab, Naing demanded to return to duty. He was sent back to fight with his old unit, now stationed in Afghanistan. In June 2010, he was checking the perimeter near a vehicle checkpoint in Marjah when a firefight broke out. Naing was directing his squad’s fire when he was shot in the chest by a Taliban fighter.
Losing blood and drifting in and out of consciousness, Naing was flown out of the fighting zone and brought back after treatment to Camp Lejeune, where he has been rehabbing ever since.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said. “But we have training of how to act when you get shot. We’re not supposed to close our eyes, don’t give up, keep breathing normally. I focused on my training and it got me through.”
Naing has been rehabbing hard, pushing himself with weight training and swimming and is determined to serve another tour on the frontline. He is also working towards earning a bachelor’s degree, beginning with classes this summer.
Even his battle-hardened commanding officers are inspired by Naing's determination and devotion to his country. Greenberg said the Marines are lucky to have a man like Naing.
"Sgt. Naing embodies everything that is admirable about Marines," said Greenberg. "It is people like [him] who make me proud to wear the Marine Corps uniform."