Ung’s uncle, mother, youngest sister, Ung, second eldest sister, father, second eldest brother, eldest brother and grandfather when the family lived in Thailand. Sgt. 1st Class Neary Ung at her desk on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. Photo courtesy of Sgt. 1st Class Neary Ung

Girl escapes Cambodian jungle, grows up to join US Army

Sgt. 1st Class Neary Ung serves as a 42A40, the human resources noncommissioned officer in charge for joint activities at Headquarters Battalion on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. At 5 foot 3 inches, Ung is fit, unassuming and quiet. Beyond her exterior, she encapsulates hard work and grit and has risen quickly up the ranks for the past 17 years. Ung attributes her work ethic to a unique personal story of sacrifice and hardship.

Born in Vietnam and raised in Cambodia’s countryside, Ung is the third of six siblings, with two younger sisters and two older brothers. Childhood was far from picture perfect; the family lived in a mere straw hut.

“We were poor, had no money to buy food, had only one set of clothes, no shoes and no TV or electricity,” she explained. “Basically, we lived in a tropical jungle.”

In 1987, when Ung was just 7 years old, her parents decided to escape their home in Thma Koul, Cambodia by going into Thailand. Just two months earlier, her uncle had undertaken the same risk but did not make it.

“My uncle died from a landmine, attended by his wife and three kids at the hospital,” said Ung. “The rest of their group got locked up in prison.”

Aware of the risks of being watched by authorities, her parents concocted a plan to break up into groups and head to the nearest train station.

“My grandfather pretended to go into the city to visit my aunt,” she said. “Later, my two brothers pretended to walk to school but instead walked straight to the train station. A short while later, my mom and two sisters followed. Finally, my dad left an hour later. We all made it onto the train, except for my dad, who missed it.”

Once the train arrived in Sisophon, Thailand, three gentlemen “guides” took them to a safehouse where they could rest for the night. But they soon received warning that authorities might capture them if they were discovered at the house.

“We walked to a meeting point in the woods and met another group, and someone said that they had seen my father,” Ung said. “But my dad was not at the meeting point that night. So, we continued on our journey, slept during the day and traveled at night for several days. My mom told me that we only ate one time. We went across a landmine farm, and the guide would check the ground before we followed.”

After traveling for several nights, they reached the border to Thailand. Crossing the field was the final stretch to freedom.

“It was a dangerous, life or death situation because if the tower’s searchlight spotted us, then we would be shot to death,” she said. “We ran in pairs and finally crossed the border to Thailand.”

At last they had made it. In the morning, they reunited with another uncle and a few weeks later, Ung’s father finally arrived. The family lived at a refugee camp for a few years in Thailand.

In December of 1990, when Ung was 11, the Thailand Embassy allowed her family to immigrate to the United States.

“My mom’s older brother in Ohio got a church in Columbus, Ohio, to sponsor all nine of us,” said Ung.

After living in Ohio for a few years, the family moved to Portland, Maine.

“I attended middle and high school there and joined the U.S. Army in 2003,” said Ung. “I wanted to get out of Maine and try something different.”

March marked 17 years since Ung joined the Army. Looking back upon her journey, Ung said she has no doubt that her experience shaped her personally and professionally. She is incredibly thankful that her family made it to the U.S.

“We have better opportunities and (did) not have to be homeless,” Ung said. “If you take an extra step toward what you want to do and go for it, you’re going to get it. It’s the land of opportunity. A lot of people have dreams, but it depends on how hard you work for it and want to get it; if you are going to walk the talk.”

Aside from her unique experience in the past, Ung lives a normal life pretty much just like any other American.

“I like to go to the gym and go for a long jog, relax at home drinking beer and watch Netflix with my hubby,” she said.

But her life ambitions are far from over.

“I want to be an entrepreneur after I retire in 2023, and open a liquor store or a distillery,” said Ung. “In 10 years, I see myself in Hawaii with my lovely and sweet husband.”

Until then, Ung is focused on her duties JBM-HH.

“I like to help service members with their pay issues, ensuring that their needs are met,” Ung said. “Sometimes it takes longer, but it’s worth it.”

And after this chapter, another journey lies ahead.