Beyond the Mekong

From Cambodia’s Killing Fields to the US Secret Service

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Beyond the Mekong | Society | Southeast Asia

From Cambodia’s Killing Fields to the US Secret Service

A conversation with author Leth Oun.

From Cambodia’s Killing Fields to the US Secret Service
Credit: Photo Supplied

As a child, Leth Oun enjoyed a happy life in Battambang City in western Cambodia. His family was poor but his father, a lieutenant in the Lon Nol government, ensured he went to school and that there was food on the table. Then, in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into town.

As a young boy, Leth Oun’s life was turned upside down. His father went missing, never to be seen again, while he was forced to sow rice in the “killing fields” where his mother concocted false names and hid her family’s background in order to survive.

The chaos that accompanied the 1979 Vietnamese invasion meant little peace and to make ends meet, Leth Oun and his mother would make a treacherous journey from Battambang to the Thai border where they bought food to be resold back home for a small profit.

But it was on the Thai border that the family found some sanctuary in the refugee camps where they were granted refugee status and flown to the United States.

Leth Oun now works for the Secret Service, the first Cambodian to join those ranks in its 158-year history. He guards presidents, vice presidents, and their families with a focus on the K9 unit, training and deploying dogs in bomb detection. He also “walks the White House like it’s home.”

And he has written a book, “A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service,” with the help of Joe Samuel Starnes, a remarkable story of survival, stealth and success.

From Washington, Leth Oun spoke with The Diplomat’s Luke Hunt in Phnom Penh, about life under the Khmer Rouge and the aftermath of their brutal regime, which left about two million people dead, the refugee camps, and finally the U.S., where he guards the president.

“A Refugee’s American Dream” is published by Temple University Press.