preah sihanouk city – Greeted by dozens of tearful family members, including the aunt who arranged his American adoption 37 years ago, Michael Vannak Khem Misiewicz returned to Cambodia yesterday aboard the US Navy missile destroyer that he commands.
With tears streaming down his face, Commander Misiewicz embraced his 72-year-old aunt, who in 1973 saw him off from an airfield in Phnom Penh as he departed for the US and a new family to find a better life away from war. He had not returned or seen his aunt since and had not met many of his family members living in Cambodia.
More than a family reunion and a goodwill mission for US-Cambodian relations, the trip brings him back to the country where in the 1970s he lost two of his sisters and where the Khmer Rouge murdered his father.
“I feel very sad, but I think coming home will help bring a little closure. I don’t think it will help completely heal any wounds that I feel about it, but it’s going to help me bring closure to the loss of my father,” he said on the forward deck of the USS Mustin, which carries a crew of nearly 300.
His return to Cambodia began nearly 5 km off the coast of Preah Sihanouk City, where a small boat, carrying more than 40 family members, journalists and US Embassy personnel, pulled alongside the USS Mustin.
While he described some sadness, the ship also carried an air of excitement and joy. Louis Armstrong’s recording of “What a Wonderful World,” played from loud speakers as the ships connected, bumping against each other. As the waves pushed them back and forth, family members cried, laughed and smiled, greeting the captain.
Sailors on the trip, which is scheduled to take several days, plan to distribute supplies at orphanages and schools and visit the anti-human trafficking NGO Somaly Mam Foundation to learn more about the issue.
Cmdr Misiewicz said he was overwhelmed by the trip at times and that he did not expect to see his aunt, Samrith Mol, so soon, as she has been ill.
In 1973, Ms Mol helped arrange the adoption of Cmdr Misiewicz by US Embassy stenographer Maryna Lee Misiewicz, whose apartment Ms Mol cleaned as a maid.
Ms Mol said yesterday that she trusted Ms Misiewicz as a sister and knew she could help her nephew avoid the chaos the country was descending into.
“I love Mary like my family member, and I thought that I would let him go first and I would follow him. But the Pol Pot regime came, so my [nephew] went, but I could not go since there was a war, so we were separated,” she said. “If he would have been here, I am afraid that he would have died,” she said.
“I want him to see the rest of the relatives. We have a lot of relatives that he has not met yet. I really want him to go there,” she said.
Cmdr Misiewicz said that on his trip he wants to learn more about the experience of his relatives over the last few decades.
“Coming back I have felt a lot of emotions about what Cambodians have gone through,” he said after meeting his relatives.
In the 1970s, he started his new life in the US, growing up in rural Illinois as the only ethnic minority in the town of Lanark, population 1,500.
After joining the military in 1985 as an enlisted sailor, he eventually became a cadet at the Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland.
It wasn’t until 1989 that he learned that his mother and surviving siblings had immigrated to Austin, Texas, six years earlier and had been looking for him.
The reunion was intense with frequent calls between Annapolis and Austin afterward, said Rithy Khem, Misiewicz’ 37-year-old brother, who flew to Cambodia for the recent visit.
The family speaks little of the suffering that they experienced but Cmdr Misiewicz did not, he said.
“We try not to talk about it. The only time we talk about it is during the holiday season…. We try not to bring the past back always,” he said, speaking with a heavy Texas accent. Though Mr Khem speaks Khmer, his brother only knows a few words.
Mr Khem spent part of the morning fielding telephone calls from his mother and brother in Texas. Both could not make the trip.
Even with the excitement over Mr Misiewicz’s visit, three other Cambodian-Americans under his command are also visiting.
Crew member Chanrathana Phun, whose family left Cambodia in 1989 when he was 1 year old, said he planned to find some of his family in Phnom Penh if he can.
“I called my mom before we were going, and she told me to brace myself for what we are going to see…. How hard it is, life is over here, compared to the stateside,” the 22-year-old Californian said. “I am just really excited and scared at the same time, I don’t know what I’m going to see,” Mr Phun said.