Developing world connections: Cadets journey to Cambodia results in hard work, new friendships

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  • By Department of Astronautics
  • Academy Public Affairs
Building latrines in a tropical climate within mere feet of a pig sty might not seem a good tradeoff for summer leave from the Air Force's Academy, but five cadets did just that and more in Cambodia.

Cadets Dylan Juedeman, Winston Sanks, Luke Stensberg, Annie Von Seggern and Hansena Vangen enrolled in the Academy's Cultural Immersion Program to learn how non-governmental organizations, the State Department, the U.S. military and its allies, team to improve public health and human rights, and reduce corruption. The trip was the first of its kind sponsored by the USAFA Class of 1981 Endowment.

The trip was organized and led by Col. Marty France, Academy permanent professor and head of the Astronautics Department. France selected the cadet team after interviews in the fall of 2013 and led preparations for the trip through an independent study course, Foreign Area Studies 499, offered in cooperation with the Political Science Department.

"The cadets read about Cambodia's long and often troubled history, concentrating on the Khmer Rouge Genocide (1975-1979), its aftermath and the current political and developmental state of the nation," he said. "They conducted interviews with Cambodian citizens and discussed goals for the trip over the course of the semester, working with Developing World Connections, a Canadian NGO helping organize service trips to developing world countries."

The team met with U.S. Embassy officials (Peace Corps, defense attaché and the U.S. Agency for International Development) June 23 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to learn how U.S. agencies team with others to help countries modernize and provide better opportunities for their citizens.

The next evening the cadets met Cambodian officers and trainees, enrolled in an English immersion class sponsored by the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia, at Cambodia's National Defense University for a barbecue.

"Spending time with the Cambodian cadets and officers, I see that many of them are motivated by the same motivations as we have; (they) have similar fears and aspirations and are trying their best just as we are," Sanks said.

The team made time for tourism in Phnom Penh and near Siem Reap, visiting markets, museums, the Royal Palace and other landmarks, including the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or "S-21," and Choeung Ek - aka "The Killing Fields."

"Standing in the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields was a shocking and terrifying experience," Sanks said. "It's one thing to rationally know that a tragic event has happened somewhere; it's another to stand amongst the cells and the fields where the acts have taken place; and still quite another to see the scratches on the walls, the chains and torture implements on display, and photos of the victims before their deaths - or to see the skulls of five thousand within the Stupa at Choeung Ek and a tooth and a femur bone of a victim sticking out of the ground. The realities of what have happened in this country are very real for me now."

The cadets hiked in a Cambodian national park, visited a wildlife refuge and rescue complex and sampled local cuisine, including fried tarantula, crickets and Red tree ant stir fry.

Then they went to work, leaving Phnom Penh for the coastal town of Kep June 29. During the next two weeks in the nearby village of Odong, they completed four brick and stucco latrines.

The projects and locations were chosen by Equitable Cambodia, a Cambodian NGO, and village leaders to have the most positive impact on the citizens; 97 percent of rural Cambodia is without running water or sanitation facilities and 58 percent of Cambodia's population is under the age of 18.

In very hot temperatures - and one case within 10 feet of a pig sty -- the cadets worked with local foremen and craftsmen, digging drainage holes for concrete septic cylinders, laying foundations with rock and concrete, building brick walls, mixing concrete in open pits by hand and stuccoing walls with concrete. Each latrine was equipped with a large compartment for a fresh water cistern to contain rinse water, covered with a corrugated steel roof and given a wooden door.

The cadets completed their first set of two latrines July 4 and sponsored a small party for nearby villages that afternoon to commemorate Independence Day, explain the significance of the day to their new Cambodian friends and answer questions about the United States.

That weekend, the team toured Bokor Mountain, another Cambodian National Park, and visited historical and agricultural centers such as Kampot, famous for peppercorn and durian fruit production, and Pre-Angkorian cave temples. They also visited coastal island fishing villages.

The following week, they moved to a different part of Odong Village to work on two more latrines -- one for a young family and another for a widow and her family of five. While their work was hampered by a monsoon, the cadets still finished the brick and stucco latrines in two days.

The team spent their final day in Cambodia at a local school built with the assistance of a South Korean NGO, now operating on its own with support by Equitable Cambodia, playing soccer with children, teaching them songs and passing out Academy mementos.

"This has sincerely been a formative life experience and I am extremely appreciative for the opportunity," Sanks said. "I cannot give enough thanks to all who were involved to make the trip happen."

France said he's proud of how open the cadets were to experiencing a life vastly different from their own.

"They were great representatives of the Academy and the U.S. military,' he said. "They worked hard, building lasting structures and friendships, and learned an enormous amount about the developing world and the organizations trying to help improve the lot of citizens in those countries. I think they realize now and embrace the fact that this is part of the world in which they'll serve as officers and the skills they gained--not just building latrines -- will be of great value once they graduate from USAFA."

Sanks crisply summed up his Cambodian experience.

"Never before have I been so dirty and had so much fun digging a hole," he said