PHITSANULOK, Thailand - Marines are men and women of diverse cultures and ethnicities who volunteer to serve in the armed forces for many different reasons. What varies even more are the life experiences each Marine brings with them to the Corps.
For Lance Cpl. Cuong V. Cao, a combat engineer with 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, III Marine Expeditionary Force, the journey to the Ban Kuad Nam Man School in the Chat Trakarn district, Phitsanulok province, Kingdom of Thailand, is like a journey back in time, reminding him of his youth.
Cao was born in Saigon, Vietnam. Cao and his assigned unit, along with Royal Thai soldiers assigned to 302nd Engineer Battalion, Royal Thai Army, are constructing a new structure at the school as part of exercise Cobra Gold 2013. Similar structures are being built at four other schools during ongoing engineering civic action projects.
Although Cao was born in the Asia-Pacific region, he and his mother moved to Houston early in his life. Cao and his mother endured many hardships as they adapted to American culture.
“I was a 9-year-old boy who went from the jungle to the city,” said Cao. “We were afraid, but my mom and I worked together to adapt to a new way of life.”
Cao was the only child able to move with his mother, leaving behind three older siblings. But what seemed toughest for Cao was leaving behind his grandfather, a man Cao looked up to.
A few years later, Cao learned something about his grandfather that turned him from a father figure into a hero.
“I found out that my grandfather fought alongside Marines during the Vietnam War,” said Cao. “It made me feel very proud.”
So proud, in fact, that Cao made the decision to become a U.S. Marine — a decision that made everyone proud, especially his grandfather.
“My grandfather was thrilled I was growing up to be like him, and that I had opened doors for my future,” said Cao.
Cao had no idea his future would lead him so close to where he was born, stirring up childhood memories of playing with his siblings and grandfather in Vietnam.
In less than two weeks working on the ENCAP, Cao has made many friends at the school, most of who are nearly the same age he was when he moved to the United States. Cao believes his passion for interacting and playing with the children stems from time lost with his own family.
“When I look into the eyes of the children, I see my siblings staring back at me,” said Cao. “It would be wrong and selfish if I did not share the same love with these children that my brothers and sisters gave me.”
Being in a new country and interacting with the local community also reminded Cao of some of the difficulties he overcame as a child.
“Language barriers do not stop Cao,” said Staff Sgt. Wesley S. Alexander, a combat engineer with 9th ESB and staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the construction site. “Cao has treated the students here like family, and they have responded positively.”
Cao has become a valued friend to the students of Ban Kuad Nam Man School and takes advantage of every opportunity to learn and spend quality time with the children at the school.
“Cao is like our big brother,” said Niti Soonkoontod, a 12-year-old student at the school. “He has a big heart and shares it when he is not working.”
Many share the same opinion of Cao’s character and agree it will serve him well in his career and in the future.
“Cao is a Marine who works hard, is very humble, sincere and respectful,” said Alexander. “Cao’s drive will push him to be a great Marine, but ultimately it will push him to be an even better person.”
Teachers at the school have noticed a different attitude from the children. While they have always been eager to learn, interacting with the Marines is inspiring them in other ways.
“I have realized that the kids hide their shyness and participate in their English studies more frequently when they interact with the Marines,” said Phulikit Prateepkeri, the principal of the school.
“It is amazing being able to watch my students interact with the Marines and very humbling to watch them treat my students like they are one of their own little brothers or sisters — especially Cao,” added Prateepkeri.
Exercise Cobra Gold is the largest multinational exercise in the Asia-Pacific region and provides the Kingdom of Thailand, United States, Singapore, Japan, Republic of Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia an opportunity to develop closer relationships and enhance interoperability.