SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Army Capt. Thoeuth Duong’s life story is a study in contrasts. Parts tragedy and providence, it is torn from the annals of history and speaks to the authenticity of the American dream.
For Duong, now serving with the California Army National Guard’s 49th Military Police Brigade, that dream has become reality -- but before the dream, there was the nightmare that was his Cambodian childhood.
Born into stark, agrarian poverty in 1969, Duong could have just as easily grown old as a farmer in rural Cambodia, but destiny had different plans for him. Chaos in his homeland, where Pol Pot energized a revolution that bloodied Cambodia, thrust darkness into Duong’s childhood.
“I remember I had to work on a boat downloading food, and we had to harvest the leftover rice in the fields,” Duong said of his forced labor at the hands of the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries, who seized his country in 1975 before carrying out a three-year genocide that claimed an estimated 1.7 million lives.
Just 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge claimed power, Duong’s father was murdered and three of his brothers were forcibly relocated to communist-run factories. Only Duong, his 7-year-old brother and his mother -- now a widow -- remained at home. Soon, his mother was forced to spend her waking hours at a nearby labor camp, allowing her neither the energy nor income to care for her starving sons.
“For a whole year, it was just me and my brother. We did everything; we took care of ourselves,” Duong said. “Once in a while my mom stole some stuff for us, fruit or whatever, but I got sick all the time. She didn’t think there was any chance I was going to make it. I had a bloated stomach -- I looked like I was going to die.”
Duong’s first rays of hope came from an unlikely source: the North Vietnamese. Though brutal in their own right, the invading Vietnamese deposed Pol Pot in 1979 and brought order to the chaos that had saturated Duong’s life.
“I remember when the Vietnamese came, they dropped propaganda leaflets. And after the leaflets, they dropped bombs,” said Duong, who recalled hiding and watching tracer bullets fly overhead in the darkness of night. “But they kicked out Pol Pot and allowed us to move around wherever.”
Reunited with all her children, Duong’s mother saw a window of opportunity in their newfound freedom of movement. His mother quickly gathered her children, Duong said, and for two weeks traversed westbound on foot -- in slippers -- in an effort to reach neighboring Thailand.
At the border, the Duong family narrowly escaped pirates and Vietnamese troops before reaching a United Nations rescue station. From there they were bused into Thailand and found a temporary home in a U.N. refugee camp. For the first time in his memory, the 10-year-old Duong experienced something resembling a normal childhood.
“It was the first time going to school and brushing my teeth,” Duong said. “I was excited about being in a stable environment and getting to go to school. There was stuff there I had never seen before -- gum, candy, painting -- I learned a little English.”
The English soon proved useful. Duong’s family lived as refugees in the camp for three years, until 1983, when an educated Cambodian who had fled to America to escape Pol Pot’s wave of terror brought the Duongs to Long Beach, Calif. Embarking on a new life in an unknown land, Duong was struck by the strangeness of it all.
“I started school in the last half of the 7th grade, didn’t speak hardly any English, in the middle of big city,” Duong said. “People thought I was in 3rd or 4th grade because I was so small and skinny [because of malnutrition]. The craziest part was to see all those buildings. It was very interesting.”
With the help of a Cambodian classmate who pointed him from class to class, Duong soon picked up the language and excelled in his classes. His surroundings, however, were marked by violence and despair, encouraging Duong to seek out a way to further improve his station in life.
“In high school, the environment was really, really bad. Many of my friends joined gangs and used drugs. In the late ’80s, crack was big, and people I knew were getting shot,” Duong said. “After graduating [from high school], I had nowhere to go, no destination, so I joined the Army. Nobody wanted me to do it, but I had to do what was best for me.”
Duong’s decision to enlist in the Army was “the best decision I could have made,” he said. Multiple combat deployments, a two-decades-long marriage, a college degree and an officer’s commission through the California National Guard stand out as highlights of a life rooted in military service.
“When I came back to Long Beach after Desert Storm, I found out three of my best friends had been shot and killed [in California],” Duong said, reflecting on how easily he could have shared their fate.
“The Army saved me,” he said.
Duong will soon retire from the Army after 22 years of service. He plans to spend more time with his family and put more energy behind his civilian career as a probation officer. But in reflecting on his nightmarish childhood, when death and poverty were the norm, his gratitude is obvious.
“I came out from a war zone,” Duong said, “and then to have a commission in the best army in the world, a college degree, married with kids, a house, a good civilian job … Yeah, I’m living the American dream.”