Three years ago, Robert Leam was a high school graduate but couldn’t get a job.
He couldn’t apply for college scholarships or pursue his dream of joining the military.
He faced the possibility of having to move to Great Britain to live with his grandparents, all because a paperwork error years before stalled his family’s efforts to become U.S. citizens.
Now, that’s all changed.
Leam is a citizen, has four jobs and is a sailor in the Navy. And, come the end of June, he’ll be on his way to Annapolis, Md., to accept his appointment to the Naval Academy.
“I knew I was going to get through but looking back it was hard,” the 21-year-old said of his efforts to start his adult life over the past few years. “I have no regrets about my path. It was highly unusual.”
That struggle and the determination it gave Leam is evident, said U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who nominated the Richland High School grad to the naval academy earlier this year.
“The challenges he faced allowed him, whether he knew it or not, to persevere to a goal,” the congressman said.
The challenges he faced allowed him, whether he knew it or not, to persevere to a goal.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.
Leam came to the United States when he was 5 because his father had a work visa to take a job on the Hanford site. But Leam and his mother and younger sister only had visas to live in the U.S.
The family decided several years after living here they wanted to become citizens, a process that could take three to six years. However, four years in, one of their attorneys missed a deadline. And despite filing to correct that error and initiating a new citizenship request, the family was left in limbo.
Leam’s parents kept him in school an extra year to keep him busy but eventually he had to graduate in spring 2012. But without a green card, he couldn’t legally work.
He also couldn’t enlist in any branch of the military or apply for most scholarships or financial aid. Leam did odd jobs around his family’s home to earn his keep, volunteered as a ski instructor outside Walla Walla and studied physics on his own time.
It was in summer 2013 that the Leams received work permits and awaited the completion of their citizenship petitions.
Robert Leam didn’t waste any time. He got a job working for a contractor and moved into a family friend’s vacant cottage in Finley. That winter, he took a job as a ski instructor at a resort in Keystone, Colo., and it was there he enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
Leam said he knew joining the military could accelerate his path to citizenship but it moved quicker than he expected, thanks to the security clearances he needed for his job as an aviation structural mechanic.
“The day before I took my oath as a sailor I became a citizen,” Leam said. His family’s citizenship applications are still pending.
Other service academy appointments: ▪ Charles Landefeld, Southridge High School, Military Academy at West Point. ▪ Seth King, Hanford High School, Naval Academy at Annapolis. ▪ Austin Dreyer, Hanford High School, Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs.
After finishing first in his class at the Navy’s “A” school, he continued working construction jobs and as a ski instructor alongside his Navy Reserve obligations at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
But it was during “A” school that another seed was planted: what about the naval academy?
“I never thought the academy would suit me,” Leam said, adding that he maybe wanted a more laid back college experience. But he ended up enjoying “A” school, which was similar to the experience of attending a service academy. He started his application last fall and approached Newhouse for a nomination.
Leam was one of many who approached the congressman for a recommendation to the academies that produce officers for all branches of the military.
Newhouse said he was impressed with all who filed applications and spoke with his staff before nominating eight Tri-City students last winter.
The congressman said he was very impressed with Leam, saying, “He had an outstanding presence about him” and “military bearing.” Despite not being born an American, Leam’s focus showed how anyone who wants to serve the country is an American.
The day before I took my oath as a sailor I became a citizen.
Robert Leam, Richland High grad
Leam’s selection also stands out, not because of where he was born, but the fact that he’s already in the Navy. The academy accepted about 1,100 civilians for the next class. Fewer than 200 current service members were tapped to join them.
His mother, Elaine Leam, said she and her husband couldn’t be prouder..
“We’re just happy he’s able to do what he wants to do,” she said.
While he’s not looking forward to having to go through another boot camp this summer, Leam said he’s glad to have served as an enlisted sailor because he thinks it will make him a better officer. He’s grateful for the support he’s received from relatives and others.
He’s even grateful for the struggles that, at one time, made those dreams appear forever out of reach.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Leam said.
Service academy appointments
The following seniors in the Class of 2016 at Tri-City schools also received nominations from Newhouse to the service academies and are known to have accepted appointments:
▪ Charles Landefeld, Southridge High School, will attend the Military Academy at West Point.
▪ Seth King, Hanford High School, will attend the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
▪ Austin Dreyer, Hanford High School, will attend the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs.