JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord will celebrate the diversity and honor of its service members, including Sgt. Maj. El Sar, I Corps command chaplain sergeant major, a Cambodian-born American who lived through atrocities as a child in his homeland and is now proud to call America home.
More than 1 million people reportedly died as a result of the Khmer Rouge communist regime's Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979, at the end of the Cambodian civil war. A 1984 British film, "The Killing Fields," documented the experiences of two journalists who lived through the horrific murders of anyone connected with Cambodia's prior government.
It was more than a film for Sar, who lost several family members to the horrific killings. He spent time in refugee camps and prisons before arriving in America as a 12-year-old refugee with his mother and siblings.
"I'm proud to be an Asian American," Sar said. "I don't forget my heritage -- but I'm glad to be an American."
As a child, Sar grew up in the jungles of Cambodia. He lived through the Vietnam War, Cambodian civil war, Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and Thai refugee camps and housing projects, he said.
"I was slapped, thrown in prison, hands tied behind my back, shot at, nearly drowned in a river, walked three days and nights through the thick jungles of Cambodia and evaded Vietnamese troops, the Khmer Rouge, pirates, criminals, Thai security forces and (avoided) more than 11 million landmines," Sar wrote in a Northwest Guardian commentary published in February.
He told of the deaths of his grandparents, father, a brother, uncles, aunts and other relatives. His remaining family members were robbed by Thai security forces.
Sar and his mother, Touch Sar, older sisters, Sopheak and Phon, and younger brothers, Ath and Ann, came to America as refugees. They arrived in Houston, Texas, June 26, 1981.
At that point, Sar had never been to school and had "zero knowledge, skills, abilities or understanding of life," he said; however, "Coming to America was like arriving in Heaven."
He learned English by watching television.
"I watched a lot of commercials, like for Jack in the Box and (Burger King) 'Where's the beef?'" he said, with a laugh.
In 1989, Sar graduated from Westbury High School in Houston and earned a criminal justice degree from the University of Houston in 1994. Next, he graduated from the Houston Police Academy in 1995.
Although Sar had long wanted to become a police officer, he realized a stronger passion and joined the Army in August 1996.
"I followed my dream to serve my country," he said.
After basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Sar began a 21-year military career that included multiple deployments and duty stations. He has been at JBLM since June 2017.
"I like travel; I like deployment, and I love serving my country," he said.
Sar initially wanted to be in the Infantry, but he was told he is color blind, to which he adamantly disagrees. Testing revealed he'd make a good chaplain's assistant, he said.
Sar became a Christian while watching a film about Jesus while in a refugee camp in Houston.
"I learned about Jesus and how he sacrificed and died for me," Sar said.
Being a military chaplain is the perfect fit for Sar, he said.
"I can go in the field shooting and spend time helping people," he said. "I love taking care of America's sons and daughters."
Sar and his wife, Lyna, have three children ranging from 9 years old to 11 months.
The couple met through his aunt in Cambodia, who lived in the same village as Lyna.
"One year later, I asked God and he gave me the go ahead," Sar said. "We've been married 15 years. She is a wonderful woman."