On December 16,1980, the world was mourning the death of John Lennon, Apple had recently made its initial public offering on the U.S. stock market, and President-elect Ronald Reagan announced Alexander Haig as his nominee to be his first Secretary of State. It also was the day Sokhom Phann arrived in the United States, a refugee in the aftermath of Cambodia's civil war.
As Phann approaches his 32nd anniversary as a U.S. government employee, the U.S. Army commemorates and celebrates the contributions of Asian and Pacific Islanders to the nation and the Army.
Phann was born and raised in Takeo Province, a farming region in southern Cambodia. His mother worked as a trader, buying crops and selling them at market. Phann graduated high school in June 1970 and joined the Cambodian Navy three months later, supported by the U.S. government.
Upon his arrival in the U.S. - first landing in Hawaii, then moving to California nine months later -- Phann said his first priority was to find a job that paid well.
"My Cambodian Navy classmates taught me how to drive and helped me register for classes at Long Beach Community College," he said, setting him on a career path that would eventually lead to civilian service with the U.S. Army.
Phann earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from California State University Long Beach in December 1984. Two years later, Phann became a U.S. citizen and soon was hired as a chemical engineer at what then was the U.S. Army Edgewood Research, Development and Engineering Center (ERDEC).
Phann has spent the last 21 years working for the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity (CMA), headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, where he is often seen wearing reflective bands and protective gear during his daily fitness walks, a testament to his commitment to safety. CMA secures the nation's remaining chemical weapons stockpile until it can be safely destroyed in compliance with an international chemical weapons treaty. Phann works for the CMA Risk Management Directorate, which supports the safety of the workforce, public and environment.
"CMA is important to the U.S. Army, because CMA is the world leader in the safe and secure storage of chemical weapons," he said.
A key aspect of safe storage is monitoring the two remaining stockpile sites in Colorado and Kentucky to detect any vapor release inside the igloos where the munitions are stored pending destruction.
As a chemical engineer in CMA Risk Management, Phann provides advice and assistance regarding laboratory and monitoring matters, and guidance to ensure the organization's new technologies comply with laboratory monitoring activities, environmental laws, regulations and permit conditions.
While Phann enjoys his work with other engineers, scientists and CMA management, he unwinds with his main hobby, ballroom dancing. But even at home, safety and risk management are not far from his thoughts. He said he enjoys gardening and doing plumbing, electrical and other work around the house to ensure his family's safety.