37 years after escaping killing fields, a Cambodian returns as US Navy commander

US Navy Commander Michael Misiewicz docked the USS Mustin in Cambodia Friday. He last saw his homeland, and many of his relatives, as a boy fleeing the murderous Khmer Rouge.

By , Contributor

US Navy Cmdr. Michael Misiewicz watched Dec. 3 as relatives prepared to board his destroyer, which was anchored a few miles off the shores of Cambodia. He had not seen any of them since he left the Southeast Asian nation as a boy 37 years ago, escaping civil war and the murderous Khmer Rouge.

The commander's face was impassive at first, but it softened as more and more extended family members were helped onto the barge below him. Then he saw his aunt, now 72, who had helped him leave for the United States so many years ago. Misiewicz walked slowly down the metal stairs and they embraced, weeping.

"When I saw her this morning," he later told reporters on the ship, "I just couldn't hold back the tears. I was so happy that she was here. It's been a very long time."

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The USS Mustin was on a four-day goodwill mission that included meetings with the Cambodian Navy and community service projects. Misiewicz made it clear that he placed his duties as captain first, but also said that he had been "overwhelmed" by emotions upon his return.

Escaping the Khmer Rouge

Misiewicz was born Vannak Khem in the rice fields outside Phnom Penh. Some days he tagged along with his aunt, who worked as a maid for Maryna Lee Misiewicz, a US Army administrative assistant with the defense attaché's office at the US Embassy. Maryna showed movies on Sunday afternoons for him and his siblings, and she also paid the hospital bill once when his aunt became sick, further building trust with the family.

"I think they saw compassion in me," recalls Maryna, speaking by phone from her home in Freeport, Ill.

As the civil war between the Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge escalated, Misiewicz's aunt and father arranged for Maryna to adopt him. At first she declined, not wanting to separate Misiewicz from his family or slow down her own career in the US Army. But they asked again.

"After some soul-searching, I thought it might be a good thing for me to do," Maryna says. "Whether they had any idea how bad Cambodia was going to get, they still had some sense that they should have one of their children seek a better life."

The two left for the US in 1973 when Maryna's assignment ended. Deciding to devote herself to her newly adopted young son, she left the military and moved home to Illinois to give him a stable environment.

"I liked the person I worked for very much," says Misiewicz's aunt, Samrith Sokha, referring to Maryna. "That's why I decided to send my nephew for adoption. And I had the feeling that I would send him first and then I would follow him later. But unfortunately the war happened."

Misiewicz, who describes himself as "happy-go-lucky" as a child, remembers the tearful goodbye of his mother, and says he promised to buy her a "big white house." He recalls being excited by the prospect of a trip to America, which to a 6-year-old boy meant watching movies and eating limitless popcorn. When he arrived, the absence of his family set in. "I cried a lot when I first came," he told the Monitor in an interview aboard the ship. "It had hit me: This is not just a fun trip; this is separation that's permanent from your family."

A Cambodian kid in the American Midwest

Misiewicz, who speaks English with a Midwestern accent (he doesn't remember how to speak Khmer, the language of Cambodia), went to high school in Lanark, a town in northern Illinois with a population of about 1,500. He was the only non-Caucasian.

He says he decided to go into the Navy partly to spare his adoptive mother, a single parent, the expense of college. After enlisting in 1985, he received a commission in 1992, and says he has learned to love his career. Officers on board the USS Mustin, a 510-foot missile destroyer, spoke highly of their commander.

"Now the ultimate joy is being able to lead sailors who are like me, who just wanted to have an opportunity," Misiewicz says.

Yet as he began to rise through the ranks of the US Navy, Misiewicz was haunted by memories of his family. The Khmer Rouge sealed off Cambodia to the outside world, and for 16 years after moving to the US he did not know what had become of his parents and siblings.

Long-awaited reunion

As it turned out, his mother and three siblings survived the regime, under which an estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died of starvation, disease, and overwork. They fled to refugee camps along the Thai border and in 1983 received asylum in America. They then moved to Texas, but it took another six years to find the boy they knew only as Vannak Khem. The search included a lot of phone books and the aid of a graduate student in Southeast Asian studies at the University of Texas.

"We knew he was alive, but we just didn't know where he was," says his younger brother, Rithy Khem, who lives in Austin but traveled to Cambodia for his brother's return.

The 1989 phone call that reunited them was bittersweet: Misiewicz learned that his father and a younger sister had died in Cambodia's "killing fields."

Misiewicz, now married with four children, stays in touch with his Cambodian mother and siblings, although he says the "Navy lifestyle" restricts visits. And he has bought his mom a house, although he says, "It wasn't quite a big white house.

"For years I've been feeling a lot of guilt because my whole family did go through the killing fields," he says. "My father was executed, and so I feel very sad, but I think coming home will bring a little bit of closure. I don't think it's going to really heal any wounds that I feel about it, but it's going to help me bring closure to the loss of my father."

Stephen Kurczy in Boston provided additional reporting for an updated article after publication.

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