Rain pounded on the roof of the bus as it drove down one of Cambodia’s main roads. Ryan Blackhurst tried to take photos with his camera but torrential sheets of water obscured his view. Occasionally, he caught glimpses of cows, pigs and chickens huddling under houses that stood on 8-foot tall stilts.
It was May 2011. The Grantsville resident was in the Southeast Asian country with his Utah National Guard unit to train for four weeks alongside Cambodian Army officers. While there, he got to serve the less fortunate, too.
The 204th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, Blackhurst’s unit, was one of several military and civilian groups who took part in a larger exercise. Navy Seabees drilled a well at a school. Army engineers constructed buildings and roads. Ophthalmologists checked eyes and performed glaucoma surgeries. Dentists pulled out teeth, some as many as a hundred a day.
In a city called Kampong Speu, Blackhurst arranged to have school supplies delivered to the Assistance to Poor Children Agency, an orphanage. He worked with Tanner Higley, a Grantsville Scout he knew through church, and who was looking for an Eagle project.
“I told [Tanner] I could take school supplies and clothing to Cambodia if he could do the legwork for it,” Blackhurst said. So the 15-year-old put out fliers, collection boxes in Walmart, and held a drive at church. In the end, he collected five duffle bags full of clothes as well as three boxes of paper, crayons, pencils, rulers, small puzzles and math game books. The military transported the donations to Cambodia.
Although Blackhurst wasn’t able to take part in delivering the donations in person, he was able to see the orphanage from the road. It was a small compound that housed 35 children. “They don’t have much stuff,” he said.
He sent his camera with the Command Sergeant Major so he could take photos for Higley’s Eagle Scout project. Sgt. Maj. Rothwell brought some soldiers to make the delivery. The clothes were displayed on the floor so the kids could pick out what they wanted. Some kids performed a traditional dance.
Blackhurst’s unit also oversaw the construction of a school.
“The school had four rooms, two on each end,” he said. “Soldiers made benches and desks like the ones in ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ There were no outlets, just chalkboards.”
As simple as the school was, the people welcomed it with open arms.
“As part of the ceremony to turn the school over to the local teachers, we wanted to give the locals some rice,” Blackhurst said. Members of his unit donated their own money — anywhere from $5 to $50 — into a pot. They gave the money to a Cambodian officer who bought rice, a seasoning called monosodium glutamate (MSG) and soy sauce.
Blackhurst said: “We had probably over a hundred packets (consisting of) a ten-kilo bag of rice, a packet of MSG and soy sauce. People came from all over the countryside. As we were driving towards the school from the base, I could see people walking from all over. Little old ladies walked for miles to get a packet.”
“They all seemed grateful to get the rice,” he continued. “They’d bow to us and be excited. They brought their kids and let us hold them.”
Before his Cambodian trip, Blackhurst read books about the Khmer Rouge, the Communist army led by Pol Pot who, in the 1970s, systematically committed genocide (killing at least 1.5 million people out of 8 million) in Cambodia to supposedly achieve agrarian utopia. They murdered all their educated people — doctors, lawyers and other professionals — and forced the rest into farm labor camps. Blackhurst met a Cambodian officer in his 50s who talked about how, as a teenager, he was forced out of the capital of Phnom Penh and into the countryside.
The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror took Cambodia back 30 years, Blackhurst said. Driving through the countryside was like stepping back into the past.
“It’s very rural,” he said. “There are rice fields behind houses. The paved road branched out into dirt roads. Along the paved road, there was electricity. [Everywhere else] they run generators.”
The Khmer Rouge’s impact on Cambodians was driven home to him when he visited The Killing Fields.
“It was somber,” Blackhurst said. “[The Khmer Rouge] literally took people out there every day. They would kill loads of people. When they ran out of bullets, they cut their throats with palm fronds.”
Blackhurst wandered the grounds thinking, “Wow, did this really happen?”
A glass display 40- or 50-feet tall contained thousands and thousands of skulls and bones. He walked through the prison cells where civic leaders were tortured, and through the grounds, where bits of clothing and bones of victims were still lodged in the grass and dirt.
It reminded him of his training trip to Germany several years before, when he visited the internment camps for Jews in Dachau. “Between [The Killing Fields] and Dachau, you just take for granted all the good things that we have,” he said.
On the lighter side of things, Blackhurst took home some amusing memories involving road etiquette. Vehicles play chicken on the road — the bigger vehicle gets to pass first.
And then there were scooters carrying entire families. “[One family had] the father driving (the scooter) and there was a small child between him and the mom, who was holding a newborn in her arms. The law is, the driver has to have a helmet on. So the father was wearing a helmet.”
Meals were interesting. For instance, he ate a partially developed duck embryo, an egg delicacy that contestants have had to eat on Fear Factor. Rice was served with every meal, even breakfast. But the best food, in Blackhurst’s opinion, was the mango.
But it was the people — friendly, grateful and humble — who made Blackhurst’s Cambodian trip memorable.
In February, the 42-year old will have served 25 years in the Army National Guard, where he’s achieved the rank of Major. Normally, he spends one weekend a month conducting training exercises for the National Guard. Once in a while, however, he goes abroad to places like Cambodia, Nicaragua, Germany and Iraq.
Deployed in Iraq from Feb. 2003 to June 2004, he admits that time was tough on his wife trying to raise three young sons without him. At least today, there’s Skype and email — technology that hasn’t always been available to the troops until the last five or six years.
His wife Debby gives some insight of why her husband continues to juggle family, church and a full-time job with a food service company while serving in the National Guard.
“He gets upset about people not putting their hand over their heart (during a flag ceremony),” she said. “I’ve never known anyone to be as patriotic.”