View Full Version : Far From The Killing Fields

Phantom Blooper
10-26-03, 05:17 AM
ONG BEACH, Calif., Oct. 24 Yoeun Ung lighted three sticks of incense with a disposable lighter, closed his bloodshot eyes and moved his lips in soundless prayer on Friday morning. He placed the smoking sticks into a Styrofoam cup before a picture of his son, Lance Cpl. Sok Khak Ung of the Marines, who was shot to death along with a friend in the driveway of his father's home last weekend.

Words do not come easily to Mr. Ung, who speaks little English. He is a struggling handyman who fled Cambodia in 1979, hoping to find a haven in this country from the Khmer Rouge. Instead, early Sunday morning, he met the too-familiar American nightmare of sudden, causeless violence and death.

Corporal Ung, too, escaped a war, having served for five months with the Marines in Iraq this year, suffering a shrapnel wound and winning the Purple Heart. His four-year hitch was due to end Oct. 31. He was planning to take the SAT on Monday and attend college in San Francisco.

Mr. Ung said he had simple dreams for his son. "I wanted to see him grow up, stay in school and get a good education and a good job," he said, his words interpreted by another son, Vibol Ung. "That's what we came here for."

But even in his voiceless grief, the elder Mr. Ung will not turn on his adopted land. "Why should I be mad at America?" he asked. "America has helped us a lot since we've been here. We're just" Vibol searched for the right English word "dumbfounded."

The shooting occurred after midnight last Saturday, as Corporal Ung and several friends and relatives were outside his father's house, freestyle rapping, drinking and eating barbecue. The home is a sparsely furnished shotgun-style shack at the end of a driveway off a busy street in a rundown section of Long Beach known as Little Phnom Penh. The authorities say Asian, Latino and African-American gangs contend for territory and influence in the area.

The police said there was no evidence that Corporal Ung, 22, or the other victim, Vouthy Tho, 21, were involved in gang activities. There are no suspects, although witnesses said a figure in a dark hooded sweatshirt rose up from behind a five-foot fence separating the Ung property from the apartment next door and fired a half-dozen shots from a handgun before running away. Corporal Ung was hit twice in the head and once in the torso and died shortly after reaching the hospital. Mr. Tho was hit in the head and died on Monday.

Mr. Tho's father, Anthony Tho, a truck driver and also a Cambodian refugee, said he learned of his son's shooting early Sunday when he was in Nashville. "When I was waiting for the plane," Mr. Tho said, "I saw people walking, laughing, they were happy and I thought, `What about me?' By the time I came home, the doctors said his brain was dead."

"When I first came to America," he recalled, "I thought I was in paradise. I thought I'd have a better life and my son would have a good future. I can't believe I raised my son for 21 years and now he's gone."

Vibol Ung said that because of the late hour and because the group at the Ung house was rapping, area gangsters might have assumed they were members of a rival gang.

May Chung, an assistant Los Angeles County district attorney who specializes in Asian gang cases, said that she had no theory on this killing but that there was often no easily understood motive for such crimes.

"They don't comport with our rules of society," Ms. Chung said. "They live according to their rules, and it doesn't make sense to us."

She said this case echoed the 1996 murder of Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian-born medical doctor and actor who won an Oscar for best supporting actor for the 1984 film "The Killing Fields," which told the story of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Dr. Ngor was gunned down in a robbery outside his home in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. Three members of the Oriental Lazy Boyz gang were convicted in the case.

Like the elder Mr. Ung, Dr. Ngor escaped genocide in Cambodia only to confront a more random sort of violence in Southern California.

Mr. Ung fled Cambodia in 1979 after 15 years in the military. "I just kept running, running," he said. His journey took him through a refugee camp on the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines, where Corporal Ung was born in 1981. Mr. Ung landed in the United States two years later.


Phantom Blooper
10-26-03, 05:19 AM
The Ungs found freedom here, but much of the rest of the American dream eluded them. The parents split up and Sok grew up with his mother in San Francisco. He joined the Marines right out of high school as a way of relieving his mother of the burden of supporting him and as a means to a college education.

The elder Mr. Ung remarried and settled in Long Beach, home to an estimated 70,000 resettled Cambodians and their families. He has barely managed to scrape by, and his face betrays not only his grief but the rigors of a life in perpetual want.

Narin Kem, editor of the Khmer-language newspaper Serey Pheap News, which is published in Long Beach, said that while Long Beach had welcomed the Cambodians, there was too little police protection in their neighborhoods and too few Cambodian-speaking police officers. Mr. Kem said many Cambodian families were trying to move to safer areas, becoming refugees once again.

He said that there had been numerous gang-style killings in Asian sections of the city in recent years, but that little attention had been paid until now. "Does the life of a marine matter more than somebody else's?" he asked.

Corporal Ung was assigned to a combat engineer battalion. He arrived in Kuwait with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in February and crossed into Iraq in the early hours of the war, said his platoon sergeant, Gunnery Sgt. Graham Hilson.

The unit moved into Nasiriya, scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the war, and took part in the diversionary attack to cover the rescue of Pfc. Jessica D. Lynch on the night of April 1. Two weeks later, he was injured when a marine patrolling with him stepped on an unexploded bomblet from an American artillery round. His family was told at first that he was seriously injured and missing in action, but he was located a day later and his wounds proved relatively minor.

Corporal Ung was treated on the battlefield and returned to action three days later. "He said he wanted to get back to his squad," Sergeant Hilson said. "I think it's a real tragic thing that this guy was willing to go over and give his life for his country and he made it back, only to have one of the people he was protecting take it from him."

Corporal Ung's older brother, Pulak Ung, 26, who lives in San Francisco, said he worried every time he heard that his brother was spending time in Long Beach, a place he considered as dangerous as a war zone.

"It makes me feel like we should focus more on this country," Pulak Ung said. "There's a war going on here in the streets. You've got a kid who had no problems with anybody, served his country and he got shot. Something has to be done."

Corporal Ung's body will receive a Buddhist blessing on Sunday morning in San Francisco. He will be buried with full military honors at the Golden Gate National Cemetery on Monday. Mr. Tho's funeral will be on Wednesday in Long Beach.