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Becoming an American

What our Thanksgiving tradition meant for one immigrant

      Anna Formici Smith can remember her first Thanksgiving as if it were yesterday.
      The year was 1964. Seventeen-year-old Italian high school student Anna Formici was spending a year in the American Southwest through a student exchange program. She’d been living with a host family in Phoenix and had just spent a week with the Navajo tribe, learning of the plight of many of our Native Americans.
     Then came Thanksgiving Day. While Anna and her hosts enjoyed a traditional turkey dinner, they talked about the meaning behind the celebration.
     “The coming together of two different people to help each other and to give thanks at a communal meal — the concept was moving and compelling,” she says. 
     At the time, she never dreamed she’d be spending the majority of her adult life on this side of the Atlantic, celebrating Thanksgiving as an American.
 
A Tradition of Thanks
      Thanksgiving is upon us. This year, as always, we’ll dine with family, count our blessings and look back nearly 400 years to the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 
     In 1620, Plymouth Colony was a harsh and unforgiving place. With the help of the long-established Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans, the Pilgrims survived their first winter. Farming and fishing practices taught by the natives enabled the newcomers to reap a good harvest the following year. When the work was done, the new allies celebrated their friendship with a harvest festival. 
     Throughout history, we’ve tried as a nation to uphold this tradition of welcoming our new neighbors and helping them get established. We’ve willed them to use their talents for the public good. Painted a picture of America as the land of opportunity. For Anna Formici Smith, that it was.
 
From Italian Bride to Lieutenant Colonel
      Anna’s exchange program ended with a four-week bus trip. On a stop for a picnic in San Angelo, Texas, she met Dick Smith, a Russian linguist training as an intelligence analyst at nearby Goodfellow Air Force Base. After Anna returned to Italy, the new friends kept in touch.
      So when Sergeant Smith was assigned to San Vito dei Normanni Air Base in the boot heel of Italy, a trip nearly 600 miles north to the Formici home in Mantova Province didn’t seem so far. He accepted the family invitation for the Christmas holidays. 
      “Mamma felt this a small way to give back for all the kindness I received while in the States,” Anna says.
     Courtship followed. 
     In May of 1967, the couple married in Mantova.
     “Even though Mamma adored Dick, it grieved her to see me marry before completing college,” Anna says. 
     With their first year at San Vito, the Smiths began a 32-year tour of the world, compliments of the U.S. Air Force. In the next five years, the family expanded to include son Michael and daughter Annalisa.
     When Dick returned stateside, his wife applied for U.S. citizenship. On June 7, 1971, in Boston, Anna swore her Oath of Allegiance. 
     “I felt so proud to be called American, to have the same status as my husband and my children and to be able to vote,” she says. 
      Of all the opportunities citizenship gave her, the most life-changing, she says in retrospect, was joining the U.S. Air Force. Having earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and graduated from the Air Force Training School at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, in 1979, Smith was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant.
      Her first assignment was Fort Meade, where Dick and the children joined her. Lieutenant Smith took to military life, though coordinating a family of four with dual military parents soon become challenging. 
      “Once Anna finished Officers’ Training School and started her first tour,” Dick says, “time issues multiplied. We faced multiple single parent-like phases. All of which made me appreciate how important being with family was, particularly during holidays like Thanksgiving.
      “I’m certain that not all husbands are as supportive as Dick,” says Anna. “I couldn’t have done it without his help.”
     Three years into their Fort Meade tour, in 1982, 1st Lieutenant Smith entered Georgetown Law School under an Air Force legal education program. She graduated in 1985.
     “Mamma came from Italy for my law school graduation,” Anna says. 
     After passing the Bar exams in Maryland and D.C., she stepped out on her own as captain in the Judge Advocate Corps.
    In 1988, after a joint assignment to Germany, the Smiths returned to their Millersville home. Dick was assigned to the Pentagon and Major Smith to the National Security Agency.
     The year 1991 brought a second military separation. With Dick working at the Defense Intelligence Agency and caring for the children, Major Smith served a two-year tour at her husband’s first duty station: San Vito, Italy.
     There, in a twist of fate, “I found myself supervising the same Italian attorney who’d interviewed me prior to my marriage,” she says.
     Back from San Vito, Anna — then working at the Pentagon as a senior litigator — was promoted to lieutenant colonel. In 1995, she took a job at the National Security Agency. Four years later, she retired from the Air Force with 20 years service. She continued at the National Security Agency, where she rose to the civilian equivalent of general in the military: senior executive. Despite one five-year hiatus to care for family in Italy, she continued at the National Security Agency until her 2015 retirement. Husband Dick worked 30 years in Intelligence.
 
Thankful for Their Blessings
     It’s been 50 years since Dick and Anna Smith married in Italy. By all appearances, she has adjusted. She’s an American.
     Come Thanksgiving Day, as always, the family will gather around Mima and Bimpa’s dining room table in Millersville. Michael and Annalisa, both now respected professionals, will be there with their spouses and Annalisa’s children Alyssa, Maddie and Liam. They’ll share a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, including dishes inspired by Dick’s mother. 
      Everyone will join hands to say grace. Then each person in turn thanks God for the year’s blessings.
     “Every Thanksgiving, it’s the same,” Smith says of her turn to speak. “I thank my family for their love and support — and my lucky stars for the way my life unfolded.”
 
 
      During the first six months of this year, 372,240 new citizens joined the American family, hoping for welcome at the Thanksgiving table and their own opportunity to get established.
      For each, Anna Formici Smith has advice: Look to the spirit of the holiday as you enter your future as an American citizen. Thanksgiving embodies the best of the American ethos — empathy, goodwill, generosity, sharing, kindness. Now you can give to your country in full measure as a U.S. citizen whose rights are protected by the Constitution.