Cambodian American Returns Home

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People in Cambodia recently welcomed the return of a noted son. Thirty-seven years ago, Navy Capt. Michael Misiewicz escaped the genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime when he was adopted by a U.S. Embassy employee. This month, he returned, as the captain of a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer.


A Khmer boy named Vannak Khem was six years old when a U.S. embassy worker took him out of his war-torn country in 1973. Earlier this month, he returned to Cambodia with a new name, at the helm of a U.S. Navy warship.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, the journey was a mix of official and family duties, pride, and long-held pain.

ANTHONY KUHN: Commander Michael Misciewicz, in his white officer's uniform, descends a ladder to welcome his aunts and uncle and other relatives as they board his ship. It's the U.S.S. Mustin, a guided missile destroyer that sailed here from its base in Japan. Tearful embraces follow. Misciewicz later speaks to visitors on the ship's foc'sle.

Commander MICHAEL MISCIEWICZ (U.S. Navy): A lot of emotions overwhelmed me today, and thinking about what I had left behind many years ago and then coming back, certainly everything has changed. But, you know, the happiness of all this is - there is positive future for the United States and for Cambodia as partners.

KUHN: When Misciewicz left Cambodia in 1973, he was known by his Khmer name, Vannak Khem, and his homeland was wracked by civil war. His aunt cooked and cleaned for Maryna Misciewicz, an administrative assistant in the U.S. embassy. The aunt, Samrith Mol, remembers giving her nephew to Misciewicz to adopt.

Ms. SAMRITH MOL: (through translator) I decided to put my nephew up for adoption because I really liked the person I worked with. I planned to send him first and follow later, but unfortunately, war broke out and I couldn't go with my nephew.

Ms. MARYNA MISCIEWICZ: His family approached me about it and I, at first, declined.

KUHN: Maryna Misciewicz remembers making a tough decision about the adoption.

Ms. MISCIEWICZ: I just wasn't comfortable being a single parent. And another part was taking a son away from his family. I just wasn't comfortable with that. Then they asked me again. And after some serious soul-searching I consented.

KUHN: Michael Misciewicz went to school in the small Illinois town of Lanark before enlisting in the Navy. Unbeknownst to him, his mom and siblings and made it out of Cambodia and moved to Texas. The family was reunited in 1989. Younger brother Rithy Khem says Michael's path in life was in some ways more difficult than his.

Mr. RITHY KHEM: I think Mike takes it a little harder than I because he split it from his family. And for me, growing up with brother and sister are different. And Mike, now he knew that he have a family. We never talk about the history. We try to leave it out.

KUHN: Michael's father did not make it out. He was executed by the Khmer Rouge in 1976. Sitting in his captain's cabin, Misciewicz says he hopes this visit will help him come to grips with his father's death.

What would you tell him if you could see him now?

Mr. MISCIEWICZ: I think it's just a very simple thank you for having the vision to do what you did and thank you for sacrificing so that some of the other family members could survive. He had an opportunity to survive, himself, but he chose to essentially be executed so that the rest of the family could live.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I got my ticket in my hand. I gotta get to New Orleans...

KUHN: The Navy's 7th Fleet Band plays for kids at a school in Sihanoukville as USS Mustin sailors meet with their counterparts in the Cambodian Navy. To some in the U.S., Misciewicz represents the dividends of the Navy's efforts to increase ethnic diversity. But Misciewicz says he's aware of the U.S.'s complex history of involvement in his native land.

A covert U.S. bombing campaign in the 1970s killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and, historians say, facilitated the Khmer Rouge takeover. After the Khmer Rouge lost power, the U.S. secretly supported them as a guerrilla force, fighting the Vietnam-backed Hun Sen government. Misciewicz says he looks at the relationship's future, not its past.

Mr. MISCIEWICZ: When I read through the history and I look at the policies, it's nothing that really I go back and question or worry about. I really look about at the future, and the future is Cambodia needs help. And I think they'll take help from anybody. And at this point in time, the United States is available to do that.

KUHN: So is China, which reportedly gives more aid to Cambodia than any other nation. As China flexes its political and economic muscles in the region, the U.S. is emphasizing its ties with Southeast Asia. This year, Cambodia became the latest Southeast Asian nation to join the U.S. in bilateral naval exercises, aimed at preparing for joint humanitarian or military missions in the region.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Phnom Penh.

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