Michael Misiewicz remembers running as a child along the muddy banks of the Mekong river with his older brother, near the stilted house where they lived in the early 1970s. The two caught fish with their bare hands from puddles, all the while hearing explosions in the distance.
And he remembers that in 1973, as the country fell deeper into chaos, his mother cried as he boarded an airplane with a US Embassy employee who adopted him to give him a better life.
“I was all smiles…. I promised her I’d become smart and learn English and that I’d buy her a big white house,” he said last week. “I thought I was just going to go and come back. I didn’t know I wasn’t going to come back.”
Michael Vannak Khem Misiewicz, 43, spoke by telephone last week from aboard the USS Mustin, the US Navy destroyer he commands and will sail to Cambodia in early December, returning for the first time in 37 years as part of a goodwill mission, meeting with Royal Cambodian Navy officials and doing community work in order to strengthen Cambodian-US relations.
“For personal reasons, it’s very emotional. And I have to set aside my emotions and the personal side of it from the actual mission of the ship,” he said from off the coast of Japan.
The trip will bring Commander Misiewicz back to the place where his father was murdered, where his two sisters died and where he departed for a better life.
Cmdr Misiewicz’s path from a boy born in a rice field to a US Naval officer began when, as a child, he played and watched movies while his aunt cleaned the home of a US Embassy stenographer, Maryna Lee Misiewicz.
As violence in the country intensified, his aunt helped arrange his adoption by Ms Misiewicz. “When her tour was over, the only way to bring me to the States was to adopt me,” he said.
“The initial intention was to keep in contact with my family, but we had a few letters…and after 1975 there were absolutely none,” he said.
Years passed. He learned English and forgot how to speak Khmer. He settled into the Misiewicz family and his tiny new hometown of Lanark, Illinois, where he was the only ethnic minority out of a population of 1,500.
Thinking about the family he left behind was painful.
“I would cry myself to sleep because I missed my mom and family,” he said, speaking with a clear Midwestern twang. “I tried not to think about it.”
It was not until after he joined the US Navy in 1985 that he began to learn more about his birth country’s recent history. He said Friday, however, that he did not want to discuss the US aerial bombardment of Cambodia.
“It started hitting me pretty hard, feeling guilty for being the one in the family not having to suffer that way,” he said. “It made me feel a lot of guilt and a lot of sadness, not just for my family but for other families that had the same story.”
He had no way of knowing that a church had sponsored his family to move to Texas in 1983 and that they were looking for him.
His mother had not participated in filling out his adoption forms and did not know her son’s new name. His family had the opportunity to immigrate to Australia but declined, hoping to find the boy they knew as Vannak.
Eventually the family attracted the interest of a graduate student in Southeast Asian studies at the University of Texas and over several years the student researched leads. His brother, Veasna, made several telephone calls to people hoping to find his brother Vannak.
“He would call and say ‘I’m your brother,’ and they would say, ‘No, you’re not,'” he said.
Finally, in 1989, his brother called the right person. At first Mr Misiewicz was skeptical, but when Veasna brought up their childhood fishing adventures, he knew it was the real thing.
“I was excited. He was excited. My whole family was all excited,” he said. “It was a miracle.”
By that point, Mr Misiewicz was attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Virginia, studying to become an officer. His friends paid for him to fly to Austin, Texas. His mother cooked and cooked for him. He learned of his father’s murder by the Khmer Rouge in 1976. He learned more about the loss of two sisters during the 1970s.
“That weekend was full of happiness and sadness because of a lot of the stories of everything that my family went through,” he said.
Still, after almost 25 years of traveling with the navy, he has never returned to Cambodia. Mr Misiewicz, now a father of four, plans to reunite with his aunt who put him up for adoption and visit orphanages.
His brother Veasna also plans to meet him here.
In an e-mail yesterday, he said he wanted to learn more about the hardship his family faced and about the small boy who left here 37 years ago.
“I hope to put some closure on the loss of my father and sisters, and I hope to continue my attempts to understand the suffering that my family and nearly all Cambodian families went through by seeing firsthand where the suffering occurred,” he wrote.