Cambodian Immigrant Becomes Citizen, American Combat Hero
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 30, 2006 Sarun Sar first experienced combat at age 11 in the jungles of Southeast Asia. He fought in several combat actions before being wounded and sent to a refugee camp near the Thai-Cambodian border.
David S. C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, greets Army Special Forces Master Sgt. Sarun Sar and his wife, Dobromila, after introducing the Silver Star recipient to the audience during DoD's observance of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month in Honolulu on May 10. Photo by Rudi Williams
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Today, Sar is a decorated U.S. Army master sergeant who has been awarded the Silver Star Medal among other recognitions. He was lauded earlier this month at an Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month commemoration in Honolulu.
Sar was born in a southwestern Cambodia village. His long trek to becoming an American combat hero was set in motion when he received an American visa and immigrated to the United States in 1980. A Presbyterian church in Bethesda, Md., sponsored his visa, and he settled with a family from the church's congregation in Rockville.
The commemoration event's keynote speaker, David S. C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said Sar and his family endured extraordinary tragedy. Pointing out that the 1960s and '70s were war-torn years in Southeast Asia, Chu said Sar's father was arrested by the Khmer Rouge -- Cambodian communists -- was imprisoned in Vietnam for subversion, and died from diseases he contracted while incarcerated.
"One older brother was caught smuggling weapons for anti-government guerrillas and was executed," Chu said.
When the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia, they instituted a radical program that included closing social institutions while relocating the population from urban to rural areas, Chu noted.
"Sarun's mother, two other brothers and a sister died of starvation," Chu said. "Many Cambodians fled across the border into Thailand seeking asylum and were transported to refugee camps. Some refugees, including a recuperated Sarun, were permitted to immigrate to the United States."
During an interview later, Sar said he didn't even know his birth date but believes he was 15 or 16 when he entered the United States. "I came through immigration people, and they gave me a birthday -- May 15, 1966," he said.
He said he joined the U.S. Army because he felt a need to serve his adopted country. "I think we take it for granted that this freedom we're enjoying is always going to be here, and it's not," he said. "People dislike the military, but when they're in trouble they always come looking for us. So, as a citizen, we need to make an effort to serve and protect the freedom that we took for granted."
Sar became an American citizen in 1986 and served with the 1st Infantry Division during the Persian Gulf War in 1990. "We did a lot of reconnaissance, so I didn't see a lot of action," he said of that experience.
Sar graduated from the Special Forces Qualification Course at Fort Bragg, N.C., in May 1992. From that course, most Special Forces soldiers go to language school. But Sar already spoke Khmer, the language of Cambodia, so he was sent straight to a team in 1st Special Forces Group.
As a member of the 7th Special Forces Group, Sar saw "a lot of action" in Afghanistan in 2003, he said.
On March 5, 2005, Sar was team sergeant and operations sergeant of Operational Detachment Alpha 732, a 12-man team that was conducting armed reconnaissance of a suspected insurgent shelter located about 9,000 feet above sea level on a ridge line in Afghanistan's Paktika province.
Sar said it was a cold, foggy morning with snow blanketing the ground as two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters carrying his team approached the ridge to investigate enemy activity. "When the first bird landed on the north side of the ridge, it received fire," he said. "I saw the whole thing because we were a few seconds behind them. We landed and leapt out of the helicopter, and I told my guys to follow me and started running toward the enemy."
Sar cornered two insurgents who were trying to run away. "One guy dropped his weapon and started screaming at me," he said. "I saw him running, and he wasn't a threat to me so didn't engage him; I let him go."
Sar then discovered that his team wasn't right behind him and called for their help. "So I had the enemy shooting over my head, and my team was shooting over my head," he recalled. The team fought its way to Sar, and he and the team medic went after the enemy fighter, who was hiding in a structure.
"As soon as I opened that little door, he fired three shots at me from a distance of about six feet," Sar said. "The first two shots missed. The third one hit the right side of my helmet and snapped it back. But we took care of him."
Later, Sar said, it felt like he'd been hit in the head with a hammer, but it only left a scratch and a bump on his forehead.
In another incident, Sar said he and another soldier were on a reconnaissance mission when they saw about 20 enemy combatants in a fighting position on top of a hill. "I chose to attack them," he said. "But if it wasn't for artillery support, my whole patrol would have been dead today. Artillery saved my butt a few times."
Sar said his team did an outstanding job during that deployment, with 14 enemy gunfights --they initiated 13. His team conducted more than 300 patrols in eight months.
"I lost one of my men there, but the enemy paid with more than 63 bodies for that one guy," he said.
Sar protested the attention paid to him during the Asian-Pacific Heritage Month commemoration. "I came from Cambodia and I lost most of my family there, and nobody here can tell me what it's like to lose freedom," he said. "This country gave me so much and (my military service) is a small price to pay.
"I don't see myself as a hero," Sar continued. "The hero is my guy who is in the cemetery right now. He deserves it more. I did something I love to do, fighting and serving my country."