When one imagines an American army veteran, it’s not likely that the image they see is that of Leon La. In fact, when he joined the army in his early 30s, there were only a few recruits in basic training that were even close to his age.
There is not very much that is typical about La. When people meet him at his family business, the Something Different nail salon in Harrison Square, one cannot imagine that this soft spoken and gentle man is not only an army veteran, but that his two tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq involved just a little less risk than his own childhood in his native Cambodia.
La was the son of a farming family in Kampuchea (Cambodia) during the brief rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. His father and mother worked their farm, which had rice paddies and vegetable gardens in a village not all that far from the Thailand border.
In 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded the country and, during a one-year civil war, managed to overthrow the Khmer Rouge leadership in power.
La was 7 years old at the time. He didn’t know about the political climate in his home country, only that one day there was quiet and the next there was sporadic gun fire and explosions.
It wasn’t a safe time at all to be in country.
When things became increasingly unsettled, La’s uncle suggested that the family escape the war by crossing the border into the relative safety of Thailand.
“My uncle helped a lot of Cambodian families across the Thai border to escape the war,” La said.
Despite the obvious dangers in staying, La’s father and mother did not want to lose their farm. It had been in the family for generations and it was the only possession they had that was really worth something, he said.
“If they abandoned it, they would have lost it forever,” La said.
They chose to remain behind, but his father entrusted La to his uncle’s care. In the middle of the night, La joined his uncle’s family on an overnight run to the Thai border.
La understood the danger of this undertaking. The family was at risk whether they were discovered by Vietnamese troops or Khmer Rouge forces.
La left home with only the clothes he was wearing. He didn’t have shoes.
In the night there pockets of random shooting, jungle noises and more raw fear than he had ever experienced in his life.
“We spent the entire night sneaking through the jungle. My uncle knew the way to go, but we were always peering around trees and making sure all was clear before tip-toeing to the next place that offered cover,” La said.
Fortune smiled upon La’s family that night. They arrived in Thailand while managing to evade random patrols and border guards trying to keep people from escaping.
His one regret: there was no way a message could be sent to let his family know he had survived the night.
His uncle’s family was his family now and they took up residence in a small staked out area of a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand.
This small space would be La’s home for the next two years.
Though La managed to escape the war that ravaged his own country, in Thailand they were stuck in the worst kind of limbo.
United Nations relief agencies, the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations provided medicine, supplies and other basic necessities, but that was it. There was no place to go, nothing to do except buy food from the Thai markets and exist.
“We were under guard and were not supposed to leave the camp. Not that we had any place to go,” La said. “If we were caught away from the camp or trying to escape into the mainland, we risked being beaten or even killed.”
The only hope they had during this long wait came from a sponsor they acquired from the United States.
It was a pastor from a church in Providence, Rhode Island.
Their sponsor provided some of the aid that they needed at the camp. And then they brought the family to the United States.
“It was a real culture shock. I was 10 and all I had known was my little corner of Asia. I knew rice paddies and gardens, I knew war and surviving as a refugee. And suddenly, there was none of that. I didn’t even understand the language enough to know the difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’,” La said.
That became very important early when a kind woman offered him a cookie, which he wanted very badly.
“I didn’t know how to say ‘yes’ and I told her ‘no’ and she put away the cookie. It tore me up,” La said, laughing at the memory.
His family were welcomed by members of the pastor’s church in Providence. They provided the means for the family to transition to life in the United States.
Because La was an orphan refugee, not even knowing if his mother and father had survived the war, he qualified for state and federal assistance through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which helped them build a new life here in the United States.
In his late 20s, he earned a professional degree from the International Academy of Design and Technology in Florida. In 2002, mere months after the 9-11 tragedy, he earned his United States citizenship and at age 32, enlisted in the U.S. army.
La served eight years, including two tours of duty on the front lines in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq.
Returning to war torn locations after a few years of relative peace was an interesting experience for La.
“I found that I could adapt to those conditions without much problem. But then, the army gave us food and uniforms and equipment. I had none of that when I was seven,” La said.
He spent three years in Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he met his wife and the state that now serves as his home.
“I received so much assistance and aid from this country. I was proud to give something back to this country before I could go on into my own business,” La said.
Now, in Cynthiana, he feels free to pursue his own version of “The American Dream.”
Several years after he left Cambodia in the darkness, he discovered that his parents and siblings were still alive. His mother has since passed away, but his father still lives. He has returned to visit on several occasions.
But La’s home, and his family, are here in the United States.