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'This country gave me so much': Cambodian refugee serving as firefighter-paramedic for Phoenix

Vee Ith and his family came to the United States as Cambodian Refugees, now he's serving the community as a Phoenix firefighter-paramedic.

Phoenix Fire Station 17 is one place Vee Ith never imagined he’d be.

“No, no, I’d never thought I’d be standing here, but definitely grateful for that opportunity and that chance,” Ith said.

But to know why Ith, a firefighter paramedic for the Phoenix Fire Department, you’d have to ask him about his backstory.

“I don’t talk about it much unless somebody asks,” Ith said.

Ith has been with the fire department for four years, working about two years at Fire Station 17.

But in the late ‘70s, his family fled Cambodia to get away from the communist regime.

“My mother and father were both in concentration camps along with the majority of my family,” Ith said.

However, Ith said his mother wanted a better life for her kids.

“We had lost my older brother, he was a couple years older than me, to starvation in the camps,” Ith said. “Pregnant with me, my mother realized to give me a shot, and like her posterity, is to escape.”

His family eventually made it to Thailand, then moved to the Philippines, then made it to San Francisco.

Ith said his family was granted citizenship when he was about in first grade. Ith smiles as he talks about that day.

“It was a pretty good honor to stand in front of everyone else, along with my parents, and get naturalized,” Ith said. “Probably one of the proudest moment of my life for sure.”

As Ith grew up he then sought out careers.

“This country gave me so much, and my family, like all the opportunities were limitless,” Ith said. “The only way I knew how was to give my body and myself.”

Ith said he spent seven years as an Army Ranger, then went into law enforcement before working for government contractors overseas.

Then, he became a firefighter paramedic, hoping to help and represent his fellow Cambodian refugees.

“A lot of our community, they don’t really rely on the government for help and stuff. They kind of call on each other and I’m just here to explain to them that it’s okay, we’re here to help,” Ith said.

Ith said he remembers one specific call that’s stuck with him for the last year and a half of a patient experiencing stroke-like symptoms.

Ith recalls seeing writings on the wall as he realized the patient was Cambodian. 

“I was able to talk to him, coax him, make him feel a little bit better,” Ith said.

Ith said he plans to serve with Phoenix Fire until he retires, holding onto his mother’s hope from decades ago.

“Her vision of what she wanted for her kids is kind of what drives me now,” Ith said.

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