VALDOSTA -- Senior Airman Liliana Plata enlisted in the Air Force on July 4, 2000, because she wanted her life to have a sense of purpose. However, up until last November, Plata used a name that didn't belong to her -- Cristina Alaniz.

Plata, 24, assigned to the 822nd Security Forces Squadron, Moody Air Force Base, now faces being released from the military with less than an honorable discharge. She also faces possible deportation from a country that she loves and has called home for almost 14 years, because she entered the Air Force under false identification.

Plata knows she made a mistake. Maj. Scott Farrar wrote in a character reference letter on her behalf, as her commander and a military law enforcement official, that he didn't condone her fraudulent enlistment and concealing her true identity. However, Farrar believes there were mitigating circumstances.

Also, Plata's mother still lives legally in the United States

Investigation starts

Plata returned from Iraq in August 2003; it was her fourth overseas deployment in the three years she has been at Moody. She was notified that the Office of Special Investigations wanted to talk to her, but she had to go temporary duty for about a month to Nevada. When she returned she found out what the OSI wanted.

"That's when I thought my life was over," she said. "I knew they had found out and there was no way I could get around it."

During the questioning, Plata told them her real name and what happened. The OSI said it would take it one step at a time before any decisions were made, she said.



Legal help

Capt. Randy Hicks, area defense counsel at Moody Air Force Base who represents Plata, recognized there were issues beyond Plata staying in the military. There were immigration issues that could result in her deportation. Hicks contacted Immigration Attorney Nancy Anderson, Anderson and Bradley Law Firm, Valdosta, to address Plata's issue. Anderson helped Plata apply for her U.S. citizenship. "That action is still pending," Hicks said.

Anderson became involved with Plata's case last Thanksgiving. The is the first situation of this type that Anderson has encountered as an immigration attorney. She contacted another immigration attorney outside the area to find out what Plata's options were.

Anderson filed for a petition of naturalization in January. Part of the petition requires that Plata have military service that is honorable. However, that request is on hold waiting to see what type of discharge Plate will receive. "That's where we are as far as her petition for citizenship is concerned," Anderson said.

Anderson said that something similar had happened with Pfc. Juan Escalante, who enlisted in the Army by showing a fake green card he had bought for $50. According to an Associated Press article, the Army said it wanted to assist Escalante in becoming a U.S. citizen, because he was a valuable soldier who would do the country more good as a citizen rather than deported immigrant. Escalante served as a mechanic in Kuwait for four months as a member of the 3rd Infantry Division that launched the ground invasion of Iraq War. The Army doesn't plan to discharge him even though he misled a recruiter, said his immigration attorney, Glen Prior.



Looking for a better life

"We were living in Mexico, and mother wanted me to have a better life, so she decided to cross over into the States," Plata said. The mother and daughter crossed over into California from Tijuana and they lived with one of her aunts in California. They moved to different areas and Plata had to change schools with each move. It was during high school that she discovered that she wanted to go into the military when recruiters visited the schools. She told her mother she wanted to join the service, but her mother told her she didn't know how she could do that.

"I talked to one of the recruiters and he told me, 'You have to be a citizen in order to serve this country'" Plata said.

They moved to Salinas, Calif., where she graduated in 1998. Her diploma meant nothing, she didn't have a Social Security number, and she wondered how she would get a job. She heard about a man in Los Angeles who was selling fake papers, and went down to Los Angeles. The man offered her documents of a girl named Cristina Alaniz, whom he said was deceased. The man told her there was no way she would be tracked down.



Starting a new life

Plata took on the new identity, which meant she gave up all her friends. She even had to go to high school again, because her new identity didn't have a diploma. She went to adult school getting extra credits and got a job with the California Conservation School, which helped her get a diploma faster. Plata told her mom that she had a chance to serve her. "She said, 'Well, you do whatever you think is right,'" Plata said. "So I did."

The recruiter asked for a birth certificate and a diploma, which Plata gave him. From there she went to Basic Training and completed the Security Forces Academy, and then was assigned to the 820th Security Forces Group, Moody.



Serving her country

Plata has served during four overseas deployments that include Operation Southern Watch in Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, Kuwait; two deployment on Operation Enduring Freedom in Manas International Airport Kyrgyzstan and Ambouli Airfield, Djibouti, Africa, and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Tallil AB, Iraq. Her unit has returned to Iraq, and Plata said she would rather be with her fellow airmen than at Moody.

In addition to her deployments overseas, her performance and contributions to her unit "have been nothing short of outstanding, while serving the United States," Farrar wrote in his letter about Plata. She has maintained the highest possible ratings on all three of her annual Enlisted Evaluation Reports.

Plata was worried about what her commanders and fellow airmen would think about her. She has received a high amount of support from them, she said. "They say 'Liliana, you have done a lot for the Air Force, you have nothing to be ashamed of -- you should be proud of what you have accomplished,'" Plata said.



Waiting

The investigation has been completed, and the Air Force will determine what Plata's fate will be, Hicks said. Fraudulent enlistment is grounds for discharge, and the Air Force has initiated discharge proceedings against Plata.

"What we are now doing is pursuing a waiver of this discharge provision," Hicks said. "The waiver authority is the Secretary of the Air Force Dr. James Roche. I am currently preparing paperwork to request a waiver of this provision. With the support she has received and her exemplary service, I'm very hopeful that the Secretary of the Air Force will waive the discharge provision and she will be able to stay in the service."

"I'm not bitter," Plata said. "I know that I will have to pay for it for the consequences. I will give anything, I will do anything. And given the chance I would serve this country again. It's an honor. I don't have words to say about how I feel for certain for this country. This is all I know. All I know is the United States and the military -- I have nothing else."



To contact reporter Rip Prine, please call 244-3400, ext. 237.

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