Veasna Roeun has fought for Cambodian Americans, some of them survivors of the Khmer Rouge, which during the 1970s killed more than one million Cambodians. He has also fought for the United States, serving as an Army National Guardsman with deployments to Bosnia and Afghanistan.
Now, 37-year-old Roeun is gearing up for another fight — a bid to unseat a fellow Danbury High School alumnus who serves in the Connecticut General Assembly.
“Even though I have a really great job with a lot of security, we decided it’s time,” Roeun, who talked over his decision to run with his wife Sokha, told NBC News. “I’m fed up with how Connecticut is.”
Roeun, a Republican born in Cambodia who came to Connecticut when he was four, is challenging state Rep. David Arconti, a two-term Democrat who represents part of Danbury, a city 70 miles north of Manhattan. Roeun said that a few months back, he broke the news to Arconti in person over a light lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings.
The two had known of each other from their community work in the neighborhood, Roeun said, and also through Roeun’s youngest brother, Chet, who was born in the U.S. and graduated with Arconti from Danbury High School, which Roeun attended earlier.
“He’s a real good guy, but I just think he’s not representing Danbury very well,” Roeun said.
Arconti did not respond to requests for comment from NBC News.
Come November, Roeun is hoping to win election to Connecticut's state House of Representatives. The position is part-time, with members of both the House and Senate receiving an annual $28,000 salary. In early June, Roeun left his job of five years with the Connecticut state Department of Labor after learning he couldn’t keep it while pursuing the house seat, he said.
“I’ve always wanted to run for elected office, but I didn’t know it would be this soon,” said Roeun, adding that he was approached in May by the GOP town committee chairman.
“What I’m trying to do is, not just in Connecticut but across the country, is to show the Cambodian community how important it is to get involved in American government and American politics.”
Roeun said he believes his bid for office is a natural outgrowth of his varied life experiences — growing up poor as a Cambodian refugee with a father who worked odd jobs to make ends meet, coming under enemy fire while leading his troops on security details and combat missions in Afghanistan, helping to engage Cambodian Americans across the country in the U.S. political process.
Roeun, his parents, his younger sister, and older brother moved to Danbury in the early 1980s, settling in a crime-ridden neighborhood where 15 to 20 Cambodian families and 10 families from Laos were already living, he said.
A local church helped many of them by providing clothing and financial assistance, Roeun said. Access to social services was limited, he added, since social workers didn’t speak the Cambodian language of Khmer.
“But the good thing was, at least we grew up around each other, where the culture was familiar,” he said. “That was our saving grace.”
At one point, Roeun’s family had to go on public assistance, he said. His father, who died in 2010, had taken on two full-time and a number of part-time jobs, sweeping floors during the day for an aerospace subcontractor and loading newspaper delivery trucks in the wee hours of the morning for the Danbury News-Times. Eventually, his dad, whom Roeun got to see only on weekends, was making enough to get off welfare and later move the family from their apartment to a house in a middle-class neighborhood.
“Social programs should be a temporary safety net,” Roeun said, adding that he believes in individual responsibility. “They should be a hand up — not a hand out.”
After graduating high school in 1998, Roeun said he knew he wanted to serve his country, so he enlisted in Connecticut’s National Guard, retiring as a staff sergeant after 10 years.
It was during deployment to Afghanistan between 2006 and 2007 that Roeun had an awakening about his own roots. It happened on the battlefield, in the middle of a firefight as mortar rounds were coming in all around him and his troops, he said. Roeun spotted a family of five — a mother, a father, a grandmother, and kids — holding onto one another as they ran between his platoon and the enemy.
“That’s when I thought about my parents and how they survived the Killing Fields,” said Roeun, referring to sites in Cambodia where approximately 1.7 million Cambodians, many of them professionals and technical workers, were killed and buried by the ruling Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.
Roeun had two older sisters who died in the Killing Fields before he was born, he said.
“All of a sudden, I’m seeing my mother and my father run through the jungles, with my brother and sister and my grandmother,” he continued.
Even though the enemy kept shooting, Roeun gave the order to cease fire, he said, allowing the family to run for cover and escape unharmed.
That moment stuck with Roeun long after he left the service in 2008, pushing him to learn more about his own Cambodian culture. An active Buddhist, Roeun helped establish and serves as executive director of the United Khmer Foundation, an organization that promotes and preserves Khmer culture.
He is also vice president of the Cambodia-America Alliance, a group that fosters cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Cambodia. On Friday, the alliance held rallies in D.C. and other U.S. cities, as well as Australia and France, calling on the State Department to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions on the Cambodian government, ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge fighter who Human Rights Watch has said uses "politically motivated violence, control of the security forces, manipulated elections, massive corruption, and the tacit support of foreign powers" to remain in power.
“What I’m trying to do is, not just in Connecticut but across the country, is to show the Cambodian community how important it is to get involved in American government and American politics,” Roeun said.
Back home in Danbury, Roeun isn’t happy with how things are going in his own state. “I’m seeing an unfriendly business climate in Connecticut, and a lot of people are leaving,” he said.
A self-described moderate, Roeun said he’s tolerant of other religions, is pro-choice but disagrees with late-term abortions, and supports gun rights even though he doesn’t have a pistol license. He’s espoused Republican ideals his entire life, Roeun added, and also believes in compromise.
“I love the Constitution,” said Roeun, who studied justice and law administration in college. “It’s the most important piece of paperwork I recognize in my entire life.”
"For us to really want change, and for us to really be a part of change, you have to be part of the process. This doesn’t just go out to Cambodians or other ethnic groups — it really goes out to all of America."
Asked about his campaign platform, Roeun said one thing he’d do if elected is support legislation to restructure state education funding for schools. Some affluent towns with fewer students, he said, receive more money per child than cities. According to the Connecticut state Department of Education, Danbury schools spent $12,728 per student between 2014 and 2015, an amount on the lower end.
“If another town doesn’t need that $23,000 per student, then let’s free up some of that money and let’s make it fair and equitable for some of the kids in other parts of Connecticut,” Roeun said.
Married just last year in July, Roeun will become a father in early October, a month before the election. That made him and his wife think hard about whether now was the right time to run for office.
But Roeun said he’s tired of complaining about what’s wrong with politics in America and in his state.
“For us to really want change, and for us to really be a part of change, you have to be part of the process,” he said. “This doesn’t just go out to Cambodians or other ethnic groups — it really goes out to all of America.”