TAMPA — Oliver Warnock came to the United States in 1963 on a ship called the S.S. America, fed up with the lack of opportunity in his native Ireland.
The Statue of Liberty welcomed. Then Uncle Sam called.
Warnock was drafted.
Now Warnock, 72, lives alone in a Tampa home, three times divorced, his three Irish sons now adults in Europe. He is sick with prostate cancer that has spread to his lymph nodes. More than anything, Warnock wants one thing:
His sons beside him as he battles for his life.
But Warnock finds himself frustrated by the U.S. immigration bureaucracy. After six years of filling out forms and laying their lives bare to the scrutiny of strangers, neither of the two sons who have applied has yet won approval for U.S. residency visas.
"This just upsets me so much," he said. "It's so frustrating."
Warnock became a U.S. citizen himself in 1968, five years after he was drafted into the Army. He would spend 27 years in the Army. And now, he said, immigration officials should grant his sons visas before he dies because of that service and of what he did for his adopted country in Vietnam.
In more than three years of combat, Warnock was awarded two Purple Hearts, five Bronze Stars, including two for valor, and a Silver Star, the nation's third-highest combat decoration.
His many commendations contain words such as "extraordinary courage" and "exemplary devotion to duty."
If not for Army bureaucracy, bad advice from government bureaucrats, bad luck and his own inexperience with immigration law, Warnock said, his sons would have become citizens when they were boys.
"Now I'll be dead before they get permission to come here."
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U.S. immigration law is not for the faint of heart.
"A lot of my clients are people who at first tried to do it alone but then needed to hire an attorney to undo the damage," said Clearwater immigration lawyer Timothy Spridgeon.
The process of obtaining a residency visa can take up to a decade, depending on the category an immigrant falls into. The decision hinges on a host of factors that include age, marital status and occupation.
"It's a long line at the window," Spridgeon said. And U.S. immigration authorities, he said, don't always seem "to be trying to find ways to help people."
Sharon Scheidhauer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, said she could not comment on Warnock's case.
"It's a very complicated process," Scheidhauer said. "There are many factors in play."
But some immigration lawyers contacted for this story said the Warnock sons must go through the process like anyone else.
"Once they turn 21, they're on their own," said Orlando lawyer Miguel Mendizabal.
Mendizabal said Warnock should have petitioned for visas and then citizenship before they entered adulthood. He said back in the late 1960s, the process would have been uncomplicated and not subject to the long delays seen today.
Adult children, he said, get no special preference, whatever their father's military record.
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Warnock left a wife and child behind in Dublin in early 1963 as he took the S.S. America to New York City.
Warnock worked two jobs, including bartending, making far better money than he had driving a bus in Dublin. He was about to bring his wife and son over from Dublin, he said, after earning enough money for the voyage. A few months after his own arrival, he got a letter.
He didn't realize until that moment, but resident U.S. aliens are eligible for the military draft. His family would have to wait.
After basic training, Warnock was sent to West Germany. He said the Army refused to allow him to live with his wife in an off-base apartment. Warnock disobeyed the order.
When the Army found out, Warnock said, he was ordered to return his wife and child to Ireland.
He visited her whenever he could on leave. The couple eventually had two more boys, all born in Dublin.
Warnock later returned to the United States and was stationed in Washington state. His family joined him there for six months.
But Warnock, still not a U.S. citizen himself, said he got orders to ship out again. His wife, knowing few in the United States and struggling to raise three children without her husband, flew back to Dublin.
Warnock flew to Vietnam.
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On May 5, 1968, Warnock nearly gave his life for his country.
As a U.S. tank commander in Vietnam, Staff Sgt. Warnock's unit advanced in support of other outfits. He came under intense rocket, mortar and small-arms fire from all sides. An eight-hour battle had opened.
"Warnock continuously exposed himself to … fire to engage enemy bunkers with the externally mounted 50-caliber machine gun," single-handedly taking out several bunkers and killing nine enemy troops, a report of the engagement said.
Shrapnel tore Warnock's back and stomach. He continued fighting for hours. He very well may have saved his unit. The Army awarded him a Silver Star.
Four months later, Warnock was flown to Guam for a ceremony granting him citizenship.
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Warnock said he never thought in the 1960s that getting his family citizenship would be a big deal. He didn't feel a need to rush it.
But after Vietnam, Warnock's marriage was disintegrating. He hardly ever saw his wife. She stayed in Dublin. But Warnock said he could not go back. The couple separated in 1975.
The mother got custody of the three sons, none of them U.S. citizens. Warnock said he didn't give that a second thought. It didn't matter then.
He was discharged in 1990 and eventually retired to Tampa.
In 2004, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which has been linked to exposure to Agent Orange.
After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Warnock said, he thought he had it beat. But the cancer returned last year. The Department of Veterans Affairs rates him 100 percent disabled.
Last week, Warnock started working on his will.
Warnock's sons visit on tourist visas when they can, Warnock said, but the trips are too expensive to be frequent.
One son, Peter Warnock, 43, an actor who does voice-over work, said his father needs his family now more than ever.
"I think it's pretty obvious, if your father is a man with the record my father has, all this should all be a piece of cake to sort out," Warnock said.
The other son, Paul Warnock, 49, is a sales executive working in Saudi Arabia who could not be reached to comment. He said he might be just months away from getting his visa. But he can't be sure.
A third son is estranged from Warnock and apparently has no plans to come to the United States.
Warnock has fruitlessly pleaded his case to some local politicians. If only the Army provided as much help to immigrant soldiers as it does today, he said, his sons would have become citizens when they were boys.
"I wouldn't give up this country for anything," Oliver Warnock said. "I've never come across a country as wonderful as the United States. It's done everything for me."
Everything, he said, but fulfilling this one last wish.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.