FORT LEE, Va. (Aug. 11, 2020) -- The question “Why did you join the Army?” typically elicits a wide range of responses from Soldiers in today’s formations.
Occasionally, though, there’s an answer that rocks you back on your heels a bit. It’s a reason that brings perspective to the rich patchwork of struggle and achievement found among the ranks. It reveals the people whose purpose and success are respectively forged and fueled by hardship and tragedy.
A big part of 1st Lt. John Cottrell’s reason for serving is a story that began more than 40 years ago in Southeast Asia where a young girl, Phary Kok, and her family lived a relatively stable life in Battambang, a province in northwest Cambodia. All of that was turned upside down when the Khmer Rouge – a repressive and brutal communist regime – rose to power in 1975.
“Before the communists took over, my father was working for the Cambodian government,” said now Phary Cottrell who resides in Zephyrhills, Fla. “He was the treasurer of the army. Once the communists took over, we had to live under assumed names.”
For good reason. The Khmer Rouge continuously sought to purge the country of intellectuals, academia, former government officials and others who opposed its political policies or who did not fit into its future narrative.
“If they knew my father had worked for the Cambodian government, they would’ve killed the whole family,” Cottrell said.
Khmer Rouge members proved to be violent and murderous. They tortured, raped and slaughtered. Masses were exterminated either through acts of violence or policies resulting in disease or starvation. During its reign, ominous clouds of fear and terror lingered far and wide, according to historical accounts.
To survive, the Koks breathed lies. Whenever questioned, Cottrell’s father professed to be a rickshaw driver. The family as a whole pretended to lack education and worldly aspirations. They hid who they were, who they knew and what they believed. Living undercover, the family’s future was no more certain than their collective next breaths.
Life would get worse, however. One day, government officials deceptively told village men their presence was required for an urgent meeting at another location. “They all went, and … we were forced by gun to our heads to ‘leave your house now,’” Cottrell recalled.
Khmer Rouge officials told the family it could return in two days.
“They lied,” she said. “We never went back. We were pushed into little villages and forced to work. All seven of us were taken away from our parents.”
The siblings also were separated. Cottrell and a younger sister were put into a reeducation camp together. She struggled through sobs while recounting the experience.
“We worked … from about 7 in the morning to 11 or 12 (midnight) with nothing to eat,” she said. “I was 10 years old and my sister was probably about 7 or 8.”
The sisters consumed grass, bugs, snails and worms. “Whatever we could find in the rice paddy,” said the survivor.
Cottrell and her siblings endured the wrath of the oppressors for four years until 1979, when neighboring Vietnam invaded Cambodia. During the ensuing chaos, the children found their parents, and together, they escaped to the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand.
“It took us three days, walking in the river from Cambodia to the Thai border where the United Nations set up a camp,” Cottrell said of the treacherous journey.
After two years in the camp, the Kok family – like thousands of others – were relocated to the United States under refugee resettlement programs. The brood reestablished itself in Rochester, N.Y., ions away from a homeland where at least 1.2 million people lost their lives.
Remembering her arrival in this country, Cottrell said opportunity, education and other freedoms enveloped her like air, readily available to all who dared to breathe. It is an exhilaration she still feels today.
“Whenever I see the United States flag, I get chills all over my body,” she said. “Freedom and opportunity mean a lot to me.”
Despite being far removed from the uncertainties in her native land, life in the U.S. was a difficult transition. Cottrell did not speak English upon arrival and knew of only native customs, many of which were traditional in nature.
“Asian ways are different,” said the middle-ager. “Women are supposed to stay home. Most didn’t have the opportunity to go to school back then. Here, there is so much offered to you for free – elementary up to high school; it’s all free.”
In 1983, after enrolling in high school, the new resident met her future husband Patrick. They married in 1989 and eventually had three sons – Benjamin, who became a doctor; Stephen, a policeman; and John, a Soldier who is now assigned to Bravo Company, 266th Quartermaster Battalion, at Fort Lee with duties as the battalion S-1.
His former company commander said he checks off all the boxes of what Soldiers should aspire to be.
“First off, he is super-motivated, very humble, is willing to ask questions and always persisting to make himself better. He takes any task and runs with it to a higher standard than what could be expected,” said Capt. Susan K. Sargent.
She also said Cottrell is a hands-on leader who takes time to understand Soldiers at all levels.
“He wants to know everyone as a person and not just as a Soldier,” Sargent said of the 25-year old. “That shows he empathizes with his subordinates, peers and superiors. He’ll say to them, ‘Tell me about your job or tell me about your family.’ He’s very compassionate about situations and things that are going on in their lives.”
Care and concern for people is what Cottrell’s parents taught him as a child, but those qualities were cemented by stories of his mother’s journey from the killing fields of Cambodia. Mrs. Cottrell said her son told her prior to his commissioning three years ago at the University of South Florida something should be done to prevent children from suffering as she did.
“He said, ‘Look, ma, nobody should go through what you did at such a young age,’” she recalled. “He said he was doing it for me. When he said that, I started to cry because I didn’t realize my life impacted my boys; that they were trying to do better, trying to serve. It’s a blessing when you can serve. It’s not what you want for yourself, it’s what you want for other people.”
In his words, Cottrell said he is drawn to leadership and caring for others and the Army is an ideal means to exercise both.
“I truly care about the people I serve with,” he said. “In this position, I’m able to influence lives and change them for the better. At the end of the day, I would like for people to tell me, like, ‘Hey, you really helped me out,’ or ‘Or if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in now for the better.’”