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Cobra Gold 24 brings soldier back to his roots

Sgt. 1st Class Sotheara Chum is not your average soldier. Chum has spent time as a Green Beret and an Army Ranger, with myriad deployments worldwide. This time, Chum is on an overseas deployment training to Exercise Cobra Gold 2024 in Thailand, but unlike previous trips, this one feels like coming home to Chum. Born in Thailand, but raised in the United States, Chum is a living bridge between Thai and U.S. cultures.

Chum’s storied Army career has brought him to the Special Operations Detachment - Pacific with the Washington Army National Guard, based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, currently serving as both the readiness and operations noncommissioned officer for SOD-PAC.

By serving in the Washington Army National Guard, Chum has reconnected with his ancestral homeland.

“To be back here in the homeland, it's almost unreal…to not only see the land, breathe the air, feel the hot muggy sun, and to relay that all back to my family,” said Chum. “With the circumstances that we had coming over the border [from Cambodia] I should not have made it this far.”

While he was born in Thailand, Chum claims Lakewood, California, as his hometown. Chum’s family fled from southeast Asia and came to the United States in the wake of political instability in their home countries. His family settled in a refugee camp in eastern Thailand near the town of Sakeo and eventually settled in the United States as refugees.

After traveling around the United States in his childhood, Chum decided to join the U.S. Army with dreams of becoming a ‘commando.’

“Originally I started off in the infantry…but I wanted to do commando stuff so I joined a ranger regiment.”

After his time as a U.S. Army Ranger, Chum wanted a new challenge that would push him to grow both as a soldier and an intellectual. U.S. Army Special Forces became his new home and brought him new opportunities.

“I did not learn how to speak Thai until I went to the Special Forces,” remarked Chum. After finishing the school house, one day at dinner, [my mom] was talking in Thai and I was responding in Thai, I knew what she was saying. It was a great awakening moment.”

Here at Exercise Cobra Gold 2024, Chum has been working with the 1st Force Special Forces Division Headquarters Element, Royal Thai Army. Chum has connected with his Thai counterpart, a noncommissioned officer who has also spent time as a Thai Ranger and in the Royal Thai Special Forces.

“We have been talking in English, talking in Thai, and I have been talking in Cambodian with him,” said Chum. “It is funny, it is surreal, and I am so glad to be back.”

Now, Chum’s mom is happy that he can have more peaceful missions. However, this trip carries a very different weight. Today, there is a memorial at the site of the refugee camp near Sakeo, Thailand where his family first settled.

“My plan after this exercise is to bring my family back over here to see that place and show my mom where it is now,” said Chum. “There are a lot of memories, both good and bad for me. It's very minimal but for both her and my dad it would be something profound for them.”