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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 Clancy McGilliganContributor / December 3, 2010

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

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.

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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."

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."


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