An hour and a half outside of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, a man in a cowboy hat wearing a blue surgical mask waits anxiously as a van pulls up.
One of the passengers is his nephew, Bunthoeun Ham, whose parents fled Cambodia in the 1970's to escape the bloody and violent hand of the Khmer Rouge and the civil wars that followed its fall from power.
The van arrives and the man in the cowboy hat, Moun Ey, approaches his nephew and sweeps him into an embrace that leaves no doubt they are family, even though this is their first time meeting.
Ham is a petty officer 3rd class in the U.S. Navy who served as the Khmer translator for the 3rd Medical Battalion, Combat Logistics Regiment 35, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, during the Cambodia Interoperability Program 2009.
It was the combination of good timing and eavesdropping that got Ham, a personnel specialist with the personnel support detachment, CLR 37, 3rd MLG, his place on the 3rd Medical Battalion deployment to Cambodia as their translator and ultimately his opportunity to meet the family that his parents had forlornly left behind.
In November, Ham arrived on Okinawa for his second tour and while checking in he overheard Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Craig, who was one of the coordinators for the Cambodia Interoperability Program 2009, speaking about 3rd Medical Battalion's deployment to Cambodia. Ham inserted himself into the conversation and vouched for his credentials as a native speaker.
Ham did not hear anything for a few months but followed the recommendations of Craig to get his passport and medical records in order then he was contacted by Craig, followed by a phone call in Khmer. On the other end was Maj. John Cherry, the Cambodian foreign affairs officer for the III Marine Expeditionary Force. Cherry asked Ham a few questions and the stuttering petty officer replied in Khmer, receiving a stamp of approval from Cherry.
Within weeks he was touching down in Phnom Penh with a plane full of Marines and sailors who had no ability to speak the language. A language that he had spoken his entire life, but when he stepped off the plane he was anxious about how good his Khmer was.
He didn't have the opportunity to avoid his role as translator. The officials from the airport who were processing the passports of the service members recognized his name as Khmer and sought him out.
Ham felt shy and stuttered a bit during his first Khmer exchange, he said.
But, he got used to it quickly. Over the next two weeks, he was immersed in the culture and language that he had always known was his but had never truly experienced, Ham said.
The Cambodia that Ham found was not the Cambodia that his parents left behind. Their Cambodia was victim to constant gun battles, the sounds of which echoed almost constantly across the rice paddies.
The refugees would move about in large groups and Ham's parents told him, "You just stayed in the middle and tried not to get shot."
Ham's visit to the Killing Fields, where thousands of Cambodians were killed during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge made Ham realize the sheer scale of the horrors his parents endured, he said. But, the people of Cambodia have recovered from those horrors.
Phnom Penh is a budding metropolis filled with new construction and motorbikes that seem to drive with little caution. The provinces, where the medical and dental civil action project occurred and his family live are developing.
"You see growth everywhere, and I know there is plenty of room for more," Ham said.
The medical and dental civil action project was deeply rewarding for him, Ham said.
In Khmer, people are referred to as older brother or older sister instead of sir or ma'am, so, for Ham, that meant he was helping the members of his very large extended family, he said.
It was his meeting with his actual family though that moved him to tears because of all of the sacrifices that his parents made to ensure that he and his siblings had a better life. He took special liberty to be able to visit them and see all the sights. The visit allowed him to see the life that he would have had if his parents hadn't left, Ham said.
The visit to his parents' villages took careful navigation on narrow roads and then further navigation on foot through the rice paddies to meet everyone.
An afternoon at the sea with his father's family wrapped up the day for Ham and his family. They parted ways thinking it was his last opportunity to see them.
But the next day, after a morning of sightseeing in Phnom Penh, Ham returned to the hotel only to have a Cambodian woman approach him with a strangely familiar face. Alin, Ham's cousin, waited almost five hours in the lobby of the hotel for him to come back. She had never met or seen him before but her family had said that he looked identical to her father, she said.
She was incredibly anxious and a little scared waiting for Ham to come back from his sight seeing, she said. The hotel staff informed her when he walked in and he was all the way across the lobby and almost into the elevator before she mustered up the courage to speak to her American cousin.
The two spent the next two days getting to know more about each other and exploring Phnom Penh.
It felt good to let Alin experience the city as a tourist with the leisure to eat from food vendors and experience her culture, Ham said. She normally works seven days a week with no days off so that she and her husband can afford to eat and live in their modest apartment.
Ham says that he misses his family now that he has returned to Okinawa, and hopes to be able to return to Cambodia in his role as translator again. His ability to help the Cambodian people and reconnect with his family made his job with 3rd Medical Battalion rewarding.