Doughnut Rambo: Cambodian refugee finds success, friendship in Las Vegas

Sothy Seang, 57, is shown at the Donut Hut, 3242 E. Desert Inn Road, on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013. The Donut Hut doesn’t take debit or credit cards, and Seang is not modernizing. “People go to the ATM and get cash because they need my doughnuts,” he said.

Sothy Seang drives to the Donut Hut in east Las Vegas almost every night around 7. He unlocks the door, turns on the lights, starts the fryer and makes hundreds of doughnuts.

He doesn’t leave until after 11 a.m. the next day.

Seang has been doing this work almost daily for the past two decades. It’s a job few people would want – selling apple fritters, glazed old-fashioneds and maple bars in a low-end strip mall in the middle of the night in a bad part of town.

But to Seang, life in Las Vegas is paradise on Earth.

Before coming to America, the Cambodian native survived the horrors of Pol Pot, the communist dictator who killed at least 2 million people. Seang was sent to a slave labor camp and worked 16 hours a day, barefoot, in a rice paddy for more than three years. He slept on the ground and ate frogs, crabs and tiny portions of rationed rice. Executions were common, and bodies were thrown into open pits.

Sothy Seang at the Donut Hut

An exterior view of the Donut Hut, 3242 E Desert Inn Rd., Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013. Owner Sothy Seang, 57, fought with the Cambodian army against the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. He later immigrated to the U.S. He has owned the Donut Hut in Las Vegas for 22 years. Launch slideshow »

Seang isn’t looking for pity, though. He’s a tough combat veteran who joined the Cambodian Army as a teenager in the 1970s and fought Vietnamese communists for years.

His war stories impressed Metro Police officers who patrolled the east side and stopped by his store. Dozens of motorcycle cops, gang-unit members and other officers have posed for pictures with Seang at Donut Hut.

The photos blanket the walls. In them, Seang wears military fatigues and carries a rifle and an American flag. Uniformed police line up on both sides of him, sometimes with squad cars or motorcycles as props. In one picture, cops stand side by side, flanking Seang and aiming their shotguns at the camera.

“If you work southeast, you know Sothy,” a veteran officer said.

Seang arrived in the United States as a refugee with no money or job skills and lived on welfare for years. He’s more than grateful for the help.

Today, he is a gung-ho patriotic American citizen. He has marched in the local Veterans Day Parade for nine years as an allied soldier, and he tells everyone who will listen that he owes his life to the United States.

“To me, this is my heaven because my life over there was hell,” he said.

•••

Seang was born in 1956 near Battambang in western Cambodia, a two-hour drive from the Thailand border. He was the second of three boys. Their mom, Sun, was a homemaker, and their dad, Sipan, worked for the local court system.

In 1970, an already volatile Cambodia was thrust into further chaos. Gen. Lon Nol seized power in a coup, deposing the royal government and kicking off five years of civil war.

With war raging in neighboring Vietnam, North Vietnamese forces used Cambodian jungles as a staging ground to attack the South Vietnamese. American and South Vietnamese forces invaded in mid-1970 to push them out but failed. President Richard Nixon then ramped up America’s bombing campaign there, strafing eastern and central Cambodia to wipe out Vietnamese enemy fighters.

Freedom Fighter Sothy Seang

Sothy Seang, owner of the Donut Hut, marches in the Veterans Day parade in downtown Las Vegas Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. Seang fought with the Cambodian army against the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Launch slideshow »

Seang’s father joined the Cambodian Army in 1970 and became a captain. Seang was enthralled with the military. He liked the uniforms and the fact that people got paid to be soldiers.

He wasn’t interested in school — he usually ditched his homework to play soccer or do other activities — so he dropped out and joined the Army in 1972. He was 16 and was paid the equivalent of $1.60 a month.

One night on watch, his partner was smoking a cigarette. Viet Cong soldiers hiding in the jungle saw the burning ember. Two of them crawled arm over arm, slit the partner’s throat and stabbed him in the chest, killing him.

Seang was 20 feet away. He saw the cigarette drop and heard his teenage partner moan. Seang screamed to get other soldiers’ attention and shot the attackers with his M16, killing them.

A Vietnamese fighter hit a nearby Cambodian machine-gun post with a rocket-propelled grenade. He fired another at Seang but hit a Cambodian bunker instead. Debris slammed into the back of Seang’s helmet and right hand.

Seang reloaded his rifle and killed the attacker and another Vietnamese soldier. Lightheaded and bleeding, Seang was airlifted to a hospital. Doctors stitched the back of his head and amputated his mangled index finger.

His commander, a colonel, brought a one-star general to visit Seang in the hospital. The colonel had informed the general about the firefight, and the general told Seang that he wanted him as his bodyguard.

Seang stayed with him for more than a year, until Pol Pot took control.

•••

Pol Pot, born Saloth Sar, was a French-educated communist revolutionary. His brutal Khmer Rouge army captured the capital, Phnom Penh, in April 1975, starting a reign of terror and genocide that wiped out almost a quarter of the country’s population.

To turn Cambodia into an agrarian, peasant-based society, he evacuated cities and forced everyone to work in rural, slave labor camps, where thousands of people died from starvation and exhaustion. He emptied hospitals, shut the borders, abolished the banking system, and banned holidays, music and entertainment. Mass graves were filled with executed lawyers, teachers, bureaucrats, businesspeople, Buddhist priests and soldiers from the defeated army. Children who resisted the Khmer Rouge were buried alive, fed to crocodiles or tossed into the air and speared on bayonets.

Seang’s father was killed around 1976, and his family, like countless others, was split up and sent to labor camps. With the stench of decaying bodies in the air, Seang worked seven days a week, bathed in groundwater, slept crowded in between rows of people and ate little food. He got a bowl of rice and water twice a day. While working in the fields, he stuck frogs and crabs in his pockets to cook later over a fire.

Pol Pot’s regime collapsed after Vietnamese forces, retaliating against a Cambodian attack, invaded the country on Christmas Day 1978.

The labor camps emptied out, but Seang had no plans to flee his country. He wanted to fight.

•••

Seang’s Army unit had buried their weapons under a Buddhist temple in Battambang when Pol Pot took power. When the regime fell, Seang and other soldiers went back to collect their stockpile — M16 assault rifles, M79 grenade launchers, machine guns, grenades and ammunition.

They wanted to take back Cambodia from the Vietnamese occupiers.

Seang joined a resistance group, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces, based near the Thailand border. By mid-1981, the group had about 7,000 fighters.

Seang spent three years in the jungle with the group. He ate rice and canned tuna every day and slept in a tent. They had little ammunition, so Seang stayed put and did not go on patrol. They hoped for U.S. support, but it never came.

While there, he met a woman who had escaped to the border with other refugees. She came from a wealthy family, but Pol Pot’s regime had killed her parents. Seang heard that the United States was looking for former Cambodian soldiers, so one night in 1981, the couple, protected by armed guards, trekked 13 miles to a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand.

They stayed there for three months, and his wife gave birth to their first son, Chris. The young family was bused to another refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived for another three months, then flew to the Philippines. They spent four months in an apartment before flying to Los Angeles.

According to Seang, the United States paid to move them here because he fought Vietnamese communists.

•••

Seang’s family lived in L.A. for a year, then moved to Long Beach, Calif., home to a large Cambodian community. He was scared about finding a job because his only real talent was jungle warfare.

He went on welfare and received food stamps while his wife attended school.

His second son, Ronald, named for Ronald Reagan, was born in 1985. A year later, Seang started working the graveyard shift at a 24-hour doughnut shop. He didn’t receive a paycheck, but a Cambodian co-worker taught him English and how to bake doughnuts.

Seang had distant relatives in Las Vegas. They worked for casinos and told him about the good wages, free food and health insurance. Plus, they said, it was easy work.

He moved to Las Vegas in 1989 and was hired as a porter at Caesars Palace, where he cleaned slot machines and the casino floor. He worked 2 a.m. to 10 a.m.

When he was off, he would stop by a doughnut store on Desert Inn Road near Boulder Highway. The owner was Cambodian. Seang liked to chat with a fellow countryman, but he also was angling for part-time work, which he got.

In 1991, Seang bought the business for $20,000 after borrowing money from anyone who would lend it. The store was open 24 hours a day until 2001, when Seang began closing in the afternoon. When the shop was open around the clock, Seang worked from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. His wife manned the counter from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The couple baked and sold doughnuts practically nonstop for two decades. They hardly saw each other and divorced in 2011.

"We worked too much like that," Seang said. “We had no life.”

•••

One morning in 1993, around 3 a.m., three men burst into Donut Hut. Two of them, flashing handguns, jumped over the counter, while the third took a seat as lookout.

One of them put his gun to Seang’s head and said that he had been watching Seang, that he knew Seang had two children. He warned him not to fight back and to give up his money.

They yanked the phone cord, used it to tie Seang’s hands behind his back and put a garbage bag over his head. They took $100, put it in a pink doughnut box and fled when a customer — a casino pit boss who always stopped in after his shift ended at 3 a.m. — saw what was happening and ran to call the police.

After the robbery, a customer took Seang to a gun show at Cashman Field, where he bought a pistol.

In 1997, three masked gunmen tried to rob Donut Hut. Seang fired a shot into the wall and scared them off.

When Metro Police responded to the robberies, Seang told them his story. The cops, many of them ex-military, took a liking to him. They started stopping by his shop for coffee and doughnuts, to check on Seang and scare off any would-be assailants.

If they couldn’t get back to the station, officers went to Donut Hut at the end of their shifts to finish reports and investigations and make phone calls.

They also started posing, in uniform, for pictures. Seang arranged them ahead of time and wore military paraphernalia for the camera — uniform, combat boots, aviator sunglasses, helmet. He carried disarmed grenades and an unloaded rifle.

About 20 of the photos cover the walls of his store.

He also has photos of himself at Las Vegas’ Veterans Day parades. When he marches, he wears a military uniform and holds a large sign that shows a picture of him dressed in fatigues and armed to the teeth, with an American flag superimposed behind him. On the sign, he calls himself a former “Cambodian Rambo” and freedom fighter and says, “U.S.A. - All the way! Proud to be an American.”

Seang, who became a U.S. citizen in 1997, is almost obsessively patriotic. He talks at length about how the American government brought him here because he fought the communists and how the government put him on welfare to help him start a new life.

“It’s so refreshing to be around somebody who appreciates what the rest of us take for granted,” said Vietnam War veteran James McGeachy, of Las Vegas, who also marches in the Veterans Day parade. “He acquired it the hard way.”

•••

Donut Hut, 3242 E. Desert Inn Road, is squeezed between a smoke shop and a shuttered copy store in the Desert Inn Plaza, a strip mall laced with empty storefronts.

The shop is open six days a week from 7 p.m. to 11:15 a.m. Until a year ago, it was open seven days a week.

Seang works there with his companion, 35-year-old Peou Sorn, a Cambodian native whom he met a few years ago after placing a personal ad in a Cambodian newspaper in Long Beach.

Seang likes being his own boss. Nobody controls him. The business is profitable, and he pays himself about $3,000 a month.

Still, his life is behind the counter. He sleeps just five hours a day, and it seems his only hobby is playing the Arizona lottery every week.

When he talks about combat, though, he’s in his element. And he hasn’t given up the fight. He keeps two guns at the shop for protection and wears black Nike kneepads every day under his pants, in case he needs to drop down and shoot an attacker through the doughnut display case.

“I’m the best,” he said. “I’m the real Rambo.”

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