Story by Sgt. John Carkeet IV
143d Expeditionary Sustainment Command
ORLANDO, Fla. - Cambodia, 1979. Deep in a dense bamboo jungle, a woman screams.
The exact date escapes her as time seemingly crawls along its infinite plane. Waves of pain crash through her body. The familiar faces standing around her prone figure show care and concern, but none display the confidence of a doctor or nurse.
She doesn’t know where the nearest town lies, let alone a hospital or clinic. However, recalling such facilities became frivolous when pursued by hunting parties of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s ruling communist party determined to cleanse the country of internationalists, innovators and intellectuals.
Though capture and torture hover above the hearts and minds of her fellow refugees, the woman’s survival instincts dig a foothold on the forsaken ground. Using every sap of physical and emotional strength, she penetrates the fear of death to find the gift of life.
Moments later, the woman's screams subside.
Her newborn baby cries.
That’s how Sgt. 1st Class Soklay Kong, a soldier in the Army Reserve, entered the world 34 years ago, though she might have fallen victim to a hasty and horrific exit if it were not for her mother’s courage and father’s perseverance.
“My family fled Cambodia on foot and eventually found refuge in Thailand,” Kong recalled. “That’s where my father used his English skills to enter the American Embassy in hopes that someone there could grant a better life for us.”
With little influence and no income, the chances of Kong and her family venturing anywhere beyond the U.N. refugee camps remained slim. Fortunately, help would come from an unlikely source far separated from the slaughter.
“The Nativity Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., had a collection of families sponsoring children from Cambodia,” said Kong. “My sister and I were among them.”
The ensuing months of negotiations did not deter Kong's sponsors as they slowly pooled enough resources to bring Kong, her parents, her sisters and several extended relatives to the United States. After a brief stay in the Philippines, Kong—having recently celebrated her second birthday—had finally set foot on American soil.
Kong's primary sponsors, known fondly to her as “Ellie” and “Dr. Watt,” did not limit their philanthropic deeds to immigration paperwork and travel arrangements.
“[The sponsors] helped us establish a home,” said Kong. “My parents, sisters, grandparents, uncles and aunts lived in what we considered a spacious place . . . Our sponsors would visit us on a regular basis and bring gifts during holidays and birthdays . . . They even hosted a huge celebration when my family became U.S. citizens.”
The years of financial, emotional and spiritual support permitted Kong and her family to acclimate comfortably into American society while preserving their Cambodian culture. Kong learned English at school and spoke Khmer—Cambodia's official language—at home. She attended Baptist church services with her sponsors every Sunday while practicing Buddhism with her blood relatives.
“My grandfather was a Buddhist monk, and my grandmother was a Buddhist equivalent of a [Catholic] nun,” said Kong. “Although I stopped practicing Buddhism and attending Baptist church services after high school, I still consider myself to be a religious person.”
Kong melded successfully into the American lifestyle by the time she graduated from high school in 1998. However, her true calling remained aloof.
“I had a rebellious side,” said Kong. “I wasn't ready to go straight to college, but I didn't want to be a bum and mooch off my parents. I knew they had worked hard to get us [to America], so I had to do something meaningful.”
That “something” came in the form of a friend who returned from Marine Corps basic training a few months after Kong's high school graduation.
“I was so naive about the armed forces,” Kong admitted. “I didn't know what the Marines were until my friend came back from boot camp. It was he who persuaded me to speak with a recruiter.”
Initially, Kong spoke with an Army recruiter, but the Marines' physical toughness enticed her to sign on the dotted line. She spent the next four years working with computers while assigned with the Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron stationed at Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Base, Hawaii.
“The Marines molded me and made me a woman,” said Kong. “I knew what I wanted in life. I was focused, and I was determined.”
Kong earned an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in 2002. Using her Montgomery G.I. Bill, she enrolled as a full time student at Remington College in Honolulu to pursue an associate's degree in computer networking technology. Missing the military life and seeking tuition assistance, Kong attempted to re-enlist with the Marine Reserves, but at the time the branch sought only candidates willing to join its elite recon ranks.
That's when Kong paid a second visit to an Army recruiter.
“I joined the Army Reserve just three months after leaving the Marine Corps,” said Kong. “Thanks to my prior service, I joined as an E-3 (private first class) and did not have to go to basic training or AIT (Advanced Individual Training).”
Kong reported for duty as an information technology specialist for the 804th Signal Company in Fort Shafter, Hawaii, one weekend every month and two weeks during the summer. Her part time status with the unit permitted Kong to finish her associate's degree and move up the ranks.
In 2006, she obtained a full-time, Active Guard Reserve position with the 655th Regional Sustainment Group out of Fort Devens, Mass., then deployed to Kuwait in 2007 with one of the 655th RSG's down trace units, the 1173rd Transportation Battalion.
“I never want to be content,” Kong said after reflecting on her diverse career path. “You've always got to set goals for yourself. If you don't set any type of goal, then what does your life mean?”
Kong currently serves as the G-6 (i.e. information technology) noncommissioned officer in charge for the 143d Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) out of Orlando, Fla. The high standards she places upon herself and her soldiers exemplify Kong's courageous childhood.
“I took my 'tough love' attitude from my mother,” said Kong. She wanted their children to do better for themselves because she and my Dad risked so much to come to the United States to seek freedom and have a second chance in life . . . That's why I push my Soldiers to give 100 percent the same way my parents pushed me to give 100 percent.”
Kong plans to retire from the Army Reserve when she reaches her 20-year mark in 2023. Meanwhile, she will pursue her bachelor's degree while providing care and instilling pride in Leyana, her 7-year-old daughter.
Kong is currently training and leading 143d ESC Soldiers as they prepare for an upcoming deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“I'm honored to serve this country,” said Kong, her eyes welling with tears. “This is my way of giving back.”