baray district, Kompong Thom province – Standing in front of more than 300 villagers last week, Sam Khong was visibly nervous, particularly when his Khmer failed him.
“I forget the language,” he said, sparking a laugh from the crowd.
But after helping secure the funding for Kluy village’s brand new primary school, Sam Khong, a 50-year-old US citizen based in Hawaii, could be forgiven for being out of practice in his native tongue.
Since 1974, the former Cambodian naval sailor has only stepped on Cambodian soil twice-and battled years of depression and mental illness in the US in the interim.
He has made marked progress in putting the troubles of his past behind him since he first revisited his homeland three years ago, and this current visit—and the school in Sou Yorng commune named after Sam Khong—are further steps towards his recovery.
Sam Khong joined the Cambodian navy shortly after the establishment of the US-backed Lon Nol regime in 1970, at the age of 14.
As a naval gunner, he saw extensive combat against the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Cong.
“Many battles,” he recalled. “I got five medals for fighting.”
In 1974 at the age of 17, Sam Khong was selected to travel to the US for one year to receive training from the US Navy.
He spent several months in Texas improving his English, and then began training at the US Navy Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois.
The intent was for Sam Khong to return home to assist the US effort against Vietnamese communists in Cambodia. But this never came to pass.
In April 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge and Sam Khong was forced to remain in the US.
He relocated to San Diego, California, and secured a job with General Dynamics, a defense contractor that produces cruise missiles and tanks for the US military.
“I cut out the bodies to Tomahawk missiles,” he recalled.
Sam Khong said that he worked for General Dynamics for 10 years. But his career ended when he was struck in the head by a metal beam while working.
Since then, Sam Khong has been unable to hold down a job, relying on a $600 per month disability check from the US government.
But he plays down his misfortune. “I pay $200 a month for my apartment and I get $150 for food stamps, so I’m doing alright,” he said.
But he has not always been so cavalier about his problems. For decades he has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to his years of combat.
After years of unsuccessfully trying to work through his issues in San Diego, Sam Khong picked up and moved to Maui, Hawaii, about 10 years ago.
It was camping in Maui that he found the means to return to Cambodia, a trip he couldn’t afford on his own.
Tom Vendetti, a psychologist with the Administration of Mental Health for Maui county, was on a camping trip with several mentally ill-patients including Sam Khong.
Vendetti asked Sam Khong what he needed to lift his depression. He responded that he had to return to Cambodia and find out what had happened to his family.
Vendetti—who accompanied Sam Khong to Kompong Thom this month—explained that the mental health administration had developed a new model for treating patients. Under this model, patients are encouraged to devise plans for their own recovery, which their therapists try to incorporate into their treatment.
“Six months later we were in Phnom Penh,” said Vendetti.
Sam Khong and the private financial backers for the trip, including Vendetti, set about locating his family by placing ads in the media shortly after arriving in March 2003.
His mother Som Van heard one of the radio ads and raced to Phnom Penh to see her son. “When I met him, I found him so weakened, but I missed him and love him so much,” she said.
Sam Khong found that his father had passed away and that he had lost siblings to both the Khmer Rouge and tuberculosis in his absence, but others survived and came to the capital to welcome him.
It was this emotional reunion after 29 years of separation that eventually led to the school opening on Oct 24.
Sam Khong returned to Maui desperately wanting to do something for his home village, and his mother had mentioned that a school was needed.
Once again, the Maui residents that made his return to Cambodia possible took up the cause. They raised $25,000 to construct the school and, to make it happen, enlisted the aid of Bernard Krisher—chairman of American Assistance for Cambodia, Japan Relief for Cambodia and publisher of The Cambodia Daily—whose NGOs have built schools around the country.
Lim Sreng, 57, a teacher at the new school, was full of praise for the 5-room schoolhouse. “We never thought we’d get a school like this here,” he said.
But even as the center of attention, Sam Khong said little, content to smile at the eager children all around him.
Never a man of many words, he said simply after the ceremony, “It is a good school—nice.”