Today, I am working in the White House, protecting the greatest house on earth. It’s something I never could have imagined for myself. I never thought I would and could be a Secret Service officer as someone who came here with refugee status, didn’t speak English, and had no money. I never dreamed of becoming who I am today.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Leth Oun, who has been an officer in the Uniformed Division of the United States Secret Service for 17 years. A native of Battambang City, Cambodia, he survived four years as a child in the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields from 1975 to 1979. After four years in refugee camps in Thailand, he emigrated to America in 1983. He graduated from Widener University in 1998.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a very poor family in Battambang City, in the northwest part of Cambodia. My mother was a seamstress and my father was a soldier in the Cambodia army until the Khmer rouge took over the country on April 17, 1975, when I was nine years old. They killed my father, his older brother, and a few other family members and friends. My mother was alone to raise me and my sisters after my father died, and she watched over my oldest sister and me as best she could while we struggled to survive the hard labor and starvation of the Killing Fields. I saw many die when I was only a child. After the Killing Fields ended in 1979, we lived four more years in refugee camps in Thailand. We came to the U.S. in 1983 when I was 17 years old.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
In 1979, after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, we were homeless on the Cambodian Thailand border. There was always gun fighting, day and night. The last gun fight we were near lasted about three days and three nights. My mother and I couldn’t move or raise our heads above the ground. On the fourth day, when the fighting stopped, a refugee relief organization picked us up and moved us to the very first refugee camp for Cambodians in Thailand, called Khao-I-Dang. When it got crowded they moved us deeper into Thailand to another camp. We heard that other countries had begun to accept political refugees. I had no idea what that mean but my mother asked someone to help us write an asylum letter. What it said, we didn’t know, but we made copies and sent to many countries. The US and Cambodia never had a great relationship as far as I knew, and we never dreamed we would end up in America. In the third refugee camp my mother was called to do an interview with some counselors from America. She did well in the interview, but we still never thought we would be coming to America. However, a few years and some months later we were very surprised and thrilled to learn that we would be coming to America.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
The experience was a shocker. I didn’t speak English nor did I have a penny attached to my name. In some of the refugee camps, there had been English lessons, but you had to pay for them. We didn’t have any money, so I hid outside the classroom at the refugee camp and listened through the window but it was never a successful strategy. I arrived unable to communicate in English.
The culture and language and traditions in America were complex to me and my family. Once, when we were first here, the Washington Redskins won a big game. We had just moved to an apartment in a Maryland suburb and we didn’t know anything about football or that there was even a game. We heard what we thought were bombs and shooting going off and hid under our beds all night. We learned the next day that it was firecrackers celebrating the victory.
I told my mother that If I am going to live in this country, I have to learn how to speak English, and I did. While working many, many low-wage jobs, I studied hard. I eventually graduated from high school in Maryland. I attended community colleges and ultimately graduated from Widener University, near Philadelphia, in my early thirties.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I am very grateful to the host family in Maryland that helped us in the beginning. They took us to the hospital, Social Security office, and many doctor appointments day and night. They brought us canned food and cookies.They found a job for me, mowing lawns for their friends and family. That’s was my first job in America. I made about $10 per lawn. I thought it was great. They were so kind.
So how are things going today?
Things are good. I have a family, two children in their twenties, and a house in Maryland. I am officer in the Uniformed Division of the United States Secret Service, where I have worked since 2002. I work as a trek officer, a K9 handler, and a K9 instructor. Today, I am working in the White House, protecting the greatest house on earth. It’s something I never could have imagined for myself. I never thought I would and could be a Secret Service officer as someone who came here with refugee status, didn’t speak English, and had no money. I never dreamed of becoming who I am today.
I have a younger sister who stayed in Cambodia. We separated in 1979. She stayed with my grandmother while my mother and my older sister and I crossed the border on foot trying to make money to support my family. When we were taken to the first camp, we couldn’t go back. We lost touch with her for many years, but we reconnected and I’ve visited with her when I returned to Cambodia on trips in 2012 and 2015.
Last year was a hard year for me. My dear mother died in August 2018 at the age of 100. She had lived with me and my family ever since we moved to the U.S., and I miss her greatly. I would not be where I am without her love and support. The only years of my life that I didn’t live with her were two years when we were separated in the Killing Fields. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a very nice obituary for her. You can see it here: https://www.inquirer.com/philly/obituaries/sin-chhoeum-100-fled-the-khmer-rouge-killing-fields-for-the-united-states-20180808.html
A month after my mother died, my dog, a protection dog I handled for the Secret Service that became a beloved family pet, died. Reik was 16 years old. He was a great dog and I miss him very much too. He was family. His story is included in this article on the website Petful.com https://www.petful.com/working-dogs/secret-service-dog-trainer/.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Each year I send money to my sister in Cambodia that she uses to help poor, elderly, and single parents in Cambodia. Some of this money pays to dig well for a few villagers and family members.
I am currently writing a book about my life with the help of two great editors, Joe Samuel Starnes, a novelist who has written about me, and Dr. Barbara Ryan, who was a professor of mine at Widener University. We hope to finish it this year and find a publisher. We plan for most of the profits to go to help Cambodian families. I also hope my story will wind up on the the big screen so the world will know about not just my life, but the lives of many Cambodians who lived through the Killing Fields, and that it will motivate others to support Cambodians today. My ultimate goal is to help Cambodians and their children to get educations. Education is the most important thing that I think should get promoted.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
My 5 keys: work hard; dream big; believe that there is nothing impossible; shoot and aim for the stars, and if you fall on the moon, that’s still great; always thrive to be better.
When I came here, the first thing in my mind was to learn how to speak English. It seemed impossible, but I didn’t quit trying to learn.
I always have tried to seek every opportunity I could find. I still thrive to be better and never stop improving.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
America is the land of opportunity. I love this country. The U.S. has always been the world’s melting pot, and I feel very fortunate to live here and contribute. I also think it is good that there are more women in power in America, and that will continue to make us a strong nation.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I would love to meet Loung Ung, author of First They Killed My Father, and Rithy Panh, the great Cambodian filmmaker. I admire their work, and like me, they both survived the Killing Fields. I always enjoy meeting people and telling them my story. Whoever has breakfast with me, either business people or celebrities, I would love to meet them. My goal is to help those who are less fortunate.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
They can follow me on Twitter @LethOunMemoir
Thank you for these great insights!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.