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My first husband, Capt. Jerry Zimmer, was an F4B Phantom jet pilot, whose aircraft was shot down on August 29, 1969, approximately 20 miles South of Da Nang, Vietnam, after six months in country. Neither Jerry nor his navigator, 1st Lt. Al Graf, was able to eject, before the aircraft crashed into the Que Son Mountains. Initially Jerry and Al were classified as Killed in Action/No Body Recovered (KIA/NBR). Years later, both Marines were listed as MIA, along with other service members whose bodies were never recovered.

Jerry has been gone nearly a half century, and hope for recovering his remains had run out a long time ago.  However, in recent years our family became involved with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), now merged with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), and learned that Jerry’s and Al’s remains might, in fact, be recoverable, so we are doing everything possible to support their efforts to make this happen and bring our guys home where they belong.

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FIELD OF DREAMS: A CAMBODIAN EXODUS

Tuesday, September 11, 2012 @ 06:09 AM  posted by Elaine Zimmer Davis

The Chau Clan celebrates Seang’s wedding — the youngest and last to marry.  Cheav, Lan, Seang, Kuy, Kang

 The Chairman of the National League of POW/MIA Families, Ann Mills Griffiths, known for not mincing words,  is very complimentary of our relationship with the Cambodian Government , as are officials within the accounting community of the U.S. Government.  The Cambodians have become a strong partner in efforts to recover the last of our MIAs in their country  – 54 still unaccounted-for – in large part due to a new generation of leadership, trying to recover from a severely troubled past to enable the Cambodian people to enjoy a  new age of prosperity.   If the following blog is any indication of Cambodian  strength, courage and kindness, I am certain they will achieve that goal.

 During much of the 1960s, my life revolved around the Vietnam War, since I was married at that time to my first husband, Capt Jerry Zimmer, who became a Marine Corps jet pilot and subsequently lost his life at the tail end of the decade.  Other than spending years watching news clips, hoping that Jerry might have been captured and that I would recognize him on TV – even though I knew he was dead, I basically left the war behind and did not want to confront issues like what was happening in Laos and Cambodia to our troops and to the innocent civilian population that gets caught up in every war.

Yet, it was hard to miss the outrage over Cambodia’s Killing Fields in the 1970s and the aftermath.  In the early 1980s I learned what the will to survive was all about from the Chaus – an amazing Cambodian family who escaped the country they loved and feared – the latter drove them to flee, wading through swamps with leeches covering their bodies.  The parents, Judy and Leang, guided their five children, the oldest only 12 and the youngest an infant — not knowing if life would be better on the outside, but certainly nothing could be worse than inside Cambodia at that time.  It took the Chau family two attempts to escape, and on the second try they left Cambodia behind and ultimately made it to the United States, where they were sponsored by a religious organization.

For nearly 10 years – soon after their arrival in San Diego — Judy and her oldest son, Kang, became a part of our extended family.  I had not seen or talked to either since 1993.  My husband, Ron, and I moved frequently for business reasons, and eventually we lost contact with the Chaus, but we never forgot each other.  Kang tracked us down through Ron’s LinkedIn account and learned of my blog. Recently he patched his mother through to me, where I am staying on the East Coast, and a couple of days later I also heard from him.  To say that we were excited to talk with each other would be absolutely correct.  As you can see from the photo, Judy and Leang have a beautiful family.

I still call Judy by her Cambodian name, but she uses “Judy” these days, because her real one does not translate well in English.  However, as one of the few who knew  her Cambodian name, it is a privilege to use it when speaking to her privately. 

As ever the humble woman that I first knew, Judy immediately thanked me for helping her in the early years, but it was a two-way street, particularly when I was recovering from a serious accident.    

Although Judy’s English was still developing back then, we had wonderful conversations – I don’t know how we did it, but it worked.  I told her that I remembered how much she missed her mother and other family members that were unable to leave Cambodia, and she told me that her mother – now in her 90s — was doing well, but the country was still very poor.   I am sure that Judy and her husband  tried to help them over the years, but I also knew that life in America was tough, especially if you were Cambodian and lived in San Diego. 

Today, Judy’s and Leang’s five children are happily married, after earning college degrees in different fields from excellent schools, including Harvard.  Judy is proud that a couple of the grandchildren are now heading to college, too.  We laugh when she tells me:  “Elaine, I have an international family – three sons-in-law – one is a Lao and two are Koreans.” 

As for travel – something that Judy and Leang could never do for years — she has been back to Cambodia many times, along with visits to most other places in Asia.  Yet, every time she travels, it’s always the same at the end of the journey:   “I can’t wait to get home,” she tells me, meaning home to California, not Cambodia. 

When Kang and I spoke, he told me that his mom is completely American, illustrating her change with a funny anecdote.  Although Kang could not see me, I had a huge grin on my face.

While talking to Kang, I finally had a chance to ask him if he enjoyed being an engineer, and we both had a good laugh when he said, “Yes, I am a happy engineer.”  I think Ron may have told him of my concern that I had ruined his life — when Kang was accepted at San Diego State years ago, he planned to major in business but made the mistake of telling me.  A shy, nice kid, I talked Kang out of business, into trying for Engineering School – the toughest, most competitive program at the university.  I made an appointment for us to meet with the chairman of the department, and off we went. I spent a couple of minutes with the dept chair, and then Kang was on his own.   I knew nothing about engineering school or even Kang’s grades but  had faith in him, and apparently the dept chair did, too. 

Before Judy and I hung up, I told her that we needed to have a reunion during the holidays, and she agreed.  I also asked if I could write a story about her amazing family, and she was quiet, so I did not press it.  However, when Kang called a couple of days later, he said that she did not mind if I wrote a story about them but did not think their lives would be very interesting.  Kang and I laughed, knowing that we were both thinking the same thing – it doesn’t get more interesting than writing about two people with five small children escaping Cambodia with nothing in their pockets, but a lot hope in their hearts – ultimately achieving the American Dream.   

Look for my story about the Chau family in early 2013.

2 Responses to “FIELD OF DREAMS: A CAMBODIAN EXODUS”

  1. Craig Nielsen says:

    We enjoy following your continuing story, Elaine. Thanks. Obviously, we’re most interested in any news about Jerry and Al, but the “extended story” (here about the Chau’s) reminds me of our ties to Southeast Asia.
    Craig Nielsen, Brown Delt, ’65

  2. Craig — thanks for your note. Some of the best days of my life were spent on the Brown campus. As you rightly understood, the Chau family is a wonderful reminder of our relationship with the people of Southeast Asia. Despite losing Jerry in that part of the world, I have found that embracing people like the Chaus has helped me overcome the sadness of losing him at such a young age. I have continued to pursue that course, and it still works for me. However, the Chaus are truly special. I hope you will stay connected. Elaine


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