Fleeing Cambodia shapes Airman's spirit

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Nick Przybyciel
  • 446th Airlift Wing
Participating in humanitarian relief efforts can be emotional for anyone involved, but few Airmen can relate to the torrent of feelings Senior Airman Lyn Yin, 728th Airlift Squadron, experienced when she went on a mission to Thailand.
For Airman Yin, the trip provided more than just the opportunity to help tsunami victims -- it gave her the chance to revisit the country that gave her sanctuary from terrorism as a child.
Growing up in war-ravaged Cambodia during the 1970s, Airman Yin eventually fled to Thailand with her family to escape the atrocities being committed by the Khmer Rouge. Her journey back to the region as an Air Force Reservist rekindled the powerful memories of her youth.
“As soon as I stepped off the plane, I was completely overcome with emotion,” Airman Yin said. “Here I am, coming back to a place where they helped me and my family survive the killing fields.”
Nearly 30 years after escaping the bloodshed of her home land, Airman Yin’s childhood experiences shaped her into a model Airman who has selflessly given back to the local community. Recently, her inspirational background and numerous volunteer activities were recognized when the 446th Airlift Wing selected her to be the wing’s nominee for the prestigious American Legion Spirit of Service Award.
The annual award is given to a member from each branch of the armed forces in recognition of outstanding community service. Airman Yin was picked for her participation in the League of United Latin American Citizens Conference in Little Rock, Ark., and her work with local food banks.
Airman Yin credits her selfless nature as being part of a “destiny” to give back to the less fortunate after she was helped out in childhood. She still has vivid recollections of refugee life in Thailand, where she ended up after a four-day trek through the Cambodian jungle with her father, pregnant mother and three siblings.
“Walking … always walking. Just walking around the camp barefoot, trying to survive,” she said.
Penned-in razor wire and armed guards in security towers at the camp, the six members of her family spent months living in a tent with dirt floors.
There was little to eat. “I remember eating Kix (cereal). Now I know it as Kix, but back then I knew it as food,” she said.
Although only six years old, Airman Yin was expected to contribute to the survival of her family while at the camps. Her main responsibility was to clean fish. And when there was no fish available, it was her job to find it and try to steal it, she said.
A relief organization eventually came to the aid of Airman Yin’s family. They found themselves sponsored by a wealthy Hawaiian family and were soon on their way to Honolulu.
Airman Yin said the acclimation to island life was a lengthy process, since the lifestyle stood in stark contrast to her traumatic childhood. She and her sisters found themselves repeatedly waking up on the floor, although they started the night off in a comfortable bed.
“You get used to sleeping on a hard dirt floor -- that’s all you know. We never slept on the bed. We started there, but wound up on the floor,” Airman Yin said, with a chuckle.
Taking showers presented another challenge. “My mom thought Woolite was shampoo because she couldn’t read the bottle. So, we washed our hair with Woolite for a while,” she said.
Although it took some time to get used to the creature comforts of Western culture, Airman Yin warmly remembers the compassion displayed by her host family. Her father was provided with a job at a hardware store the family owned, and they found a tutor for Airman Yin and her siblings.
“I didn’t pay much attention to learning. I was too busy eating! Coming from a place where you don’t have food, you don’t know if it’s real or not. There’s a sense that this can all go away at any minute and you’ll be hungry again,” she said.
Her family eventually got comfortable in their new surroundings, and they became actively involved in the effort to move more Cambodian refugees to Hawaii.
Airman Yin moved to Western Washington with her two children in 1999 in order to grow on a personal and professional level, she said. She joined the Air Force Reserve in 2003. “I needed some way to provide my children with the opportunities I never had,” Airman Yin said.
One of those opportunities includes purchasing her first house, which Airman Yin is in process of doing. “As a foreigner coming to America, it’s your dream to own your own home,” she said.
The neighborhood where her future house is located -- the Hilltop district of Tacoma -- has a large Cambodian-American population. Airman Yin already has big plans to help educate the immigrants there, many of whom she says are hesitant to get medical attention or find social services.
“They don’t seek out help. Due to their (Buddhist) beliefs, they believe that whenever something bad happens, it’s due to something you either did or did not do - karma. They don’t realize you can get sick because you ate something that was bad,” she said.
When she’s not in uniform or volunteering in the community, Airman Yin works for the Washington State Employee Security Department and attends classes at Saint Martin’s University, Lacey, Wash., where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership.