Leth Oun survived the Khmer Rouge reign of terror as a teenager. He is now a U.S. Secret Service officer
As a young boy growing up in Battambang City in northwest Cambodia, Leth Oun enjoyed a
simple life with his parents, grandparents and two sisters.
“We were very poor. My father was a lieutenant in the Cambodian army, and fought many battles over his career,” Oun said. “My mom worked as a seamstress and also rolled cigarettes when she couldn’t get enough work.”
The family lived in a tight-knit community and neighbors watched out for each other. But, in April 1975, the lives of Battambang residents were shattered and torn apart – as was the nation.
Amazingly, Oun survived the four-year reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge and arrived in the United States as a penniless refugee at the tender age of 17.
He will talk about his life and the book he wrote with Joe Samuel Starnes, a friend he met at Widener University, during the Meet the Authors event on Wednesday, June 28, at 7 p.m. in the Mullica Hill Library, 389 Wolfert Station Road, Mullica Hill.
Sponsored by the Gloucester County Library System, Oun and Starnes will discuss A Refugee’s American Dream: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the U.S. Secret Service and answer questions from the audience. For information call (856) 226-6060 or go to www.gcls.org.
The rebels executed many thousands of soldiers, police officers, and others when they took over the country in April 1975, Oun said, including his father.
“The Khmer Rouge’s communist regime that became known as Angkar enslaved most of the country’s residents and forced them to work in the Killing Fields,” Oun said.
Ultimately, almost two million people died from 1975 through 1979 from execution, starvation, and disease.
“An aunt and an uncle who were very close to me were killed, and many other relatives died,” Oun recounted. “My mother and my two sisters – one older and one younger — survived, as did my grandfather on my mom’s side.
“Our experience was agonizing. We often worked 12 to 16 hours a day in rice paddies, seven days a week. I almost starved to death, lived through many battles, and at one point was tortured by the Khmer Rouge.”
Eventually, Oun changed his name and made his way to a refugee camp in Thailand. After four years of terrible heartache and loss, he eventually was able to get to the United States and live with relatives.
“I flew through San Francisco and then to Washington D.C. and settled in Maryland,” he said. “I was 17 at the time.”
Oun remembered he was in awe of all the cars and lights and the nicely paved roads and buildings in the nation’s capital.
“We were happy to be in America and safe,” he said. “However, I also found it intimidating with all I had to learn. I spoke very few words of English and understood almost nothing, so I knew I had to focus on learning English to be successful here.”
Living in America, Oun realized he had a second chance. With ambition and desire to achieve the American Dream, he got a job as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant and earned his high school degree. From then he graduated from Widener University and trained to be a Secret Service officer.
“My parents’ love for me and the examples they set for me has always inspired me to reach higher in everything I do,” he said. “I also believe that if I can survive what I went through, I can achieve anything. I knew that no obstacle in America could be worse than that.
“I weighed only 89 pounds when I arrived in the U.S., but now I’m about 175 pounds and can bench press close to 300 pounds at the age of 56.”
As for the message of hope he will bring to the Meets the Authors night, Oun stated, “I believe my story can inspire others who are facing hardships. If I can survive what I did and go on to work for the Secret Service, nothing is impossible.
“I also hope to educate people about what happened in Cambodia less than 50 years ago, and pay tribute to both of my parents,” he said, adding that all the proceeds he and Starnes earn from the book will go to support Cambodian children in need. “I hope that I can help many in my home country.”
Oun and Starnes met at Widener University in 2011.
“I wrote a profile of him and we stayed in touch,” Starnes said, noting he was an editor for the alumni magazine at the University at the time. “He talked about writing a book and I encouraged him.”
In 2017, they began working together. Oun had written some 50,000 words on his own.
Together, they conducted many extensive interviews and went through many drafts to finish the book that turned out to be 110,000 words.
“His story is so remarkable in so many ways,” Starnes said. “Before I coauthored this book, I had written and published three novels and plan to write and publish more novels. I never wanted to be a coauthor of someone else’s book.
“But his story is so incredible that I was drawn to it. He was the first native Cambodian to work for the U.S. Secret Service. The fact that he lived through all he did to not give up and find success and happiness is amazing. His story made me realize what an idyllic childhood and life I’ve been able to lead, and also has inspired me to join him in helping children in Cambodia.”
Oun’s life as a teenager was scary, heartbreaking and full of terror. But, as an adult, he has thrived and lived the American Dream.
“I do not have nightmares or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) anymore,” Oun said. “When I first arrived in America, I felt lonely and homesick and I used to think a lot about what I had been through.
“Ultimately, however, I used it to a positive effect. I told myself that even though all these terrible things happened to me, I didn’t die. I used that survival to motivate me and to help me to thrive harder and set higher goals in my life. I hope my story can help other survivors do the same.”