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.
(Page 2 of 2)
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."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.
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."