By Suzanne OvelMay 9, 2013
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (May 9, 2013) -- The harrowing escape through the Cambodian jungles, the constant struggle to evade guerrilla forces, the years spent at a Thai refugee camp-- Sochara Chumnoeur remembered none of this when she arrived in America in 1988.
At just eight years old, Chumnoeur arrived with her family in Connecticut knowing little English. While she may have forgotten about her home country (which she believes her mind blocked out), her parents ingrained her Cambodian culture in her here. She also learned her parents' work ethic, from their emphasis on her schoolwork to their example of building a life from factory wages.
"When you come from real poverty, working for $5 an hour was a gift in itself," Chumnoeur said.
Her parents' success despite their struggles propelled her to always set the bar high for herself as well.
"That's my motivation and drive to succeed educationally, professionally and personally," she said.
While her drive earned her an academic scholarship to the University of Connecticut, her decision to go into nursing came from her grandma, who suffered a stroke when Chumnoeur was 12. Her grandma survived, but Chumnoeur came out of the experience with a deep desire to go into nursing.
It would take a trip back to Cambodia at the age of 19, though, to ignite the desire to serve her country.
"In going back to Cambodia, I saw what my life could've been. Over there, there's no independence. Here, I appreciate my independence, my education," said Chumnoeur. "It dawned on me (that) I want to give back to a country that's given so much to me."
Getting married deterred her plans to join the Peace Corps after college, but a meeting with a military recruiter had her considering another path.
"Joining the military was really a taboo for me as a Cambodian woman," said Chumnoeur, who defied tradition to join the Army in 2004 as a Reservist; after serving at Walter Reed Medical Center, she opted to go active duty.
After about nine years in the field, Chumnoeur has developed a nursing style that focuses on truly connecting with her Soldiers. A self-described hugger, she takes the time to build relationships with them.
"The human factor is the most important factor, above all, in my nursing philosophy," said Chumnoeur, now a captain and a nurse case manager with the Warrior Transition Battalion's Bravo Company.
As a nurse case manager, she serves as a liaison for her Soldiers and their medical providers, manages their appointments, and helps develop their treatment plans. She's also at times unofficially their counselor, friend, confidant and mother figure. She treats her Soldiers as she would want her own family to be cared for.
"I hope that one day if my sons were in the military, and they got hurt, that they'd have someone like me, or any one of my Bravo case managers, taking care of them," Chumnoeur said.
She hopes that by making that human connection with her Soldiers, that they will turn to her for help when they need it most.
"Hopefully they know that I'm trying; in their moment of pain and suffering, hopefully I'm the one that they call," she said.
With the intensity of her Soldiers' needs, Chumnoeur found last summer, though, that giving so much of herself requires an effort to stay balanced.
"I had compassion fatigue like nobody's business … and I didn't know how to deal with it," said Chumnoeur.
Her officemate Vicki Fry helped her through it, who she said, "Saved me from myself, because I was so busy trying to save others."
Chumnoeur's since learned to better achieve the delicate balance of caring for her Soldiers and herself, although as she prepares to move to Texas, she looks back on her time here with no misgivings.
"I have no regrets at all in how much heart, how much love, how much work I've put into my Soldiers," said Chumnoeur.