The life of a soldier certainly isn’t for everyone. The training is gruelling, the hours long and there’s no room for excuses. On top of that, soldiers must be ready to respond to sudden threats at a moment’s notice.
Just ask Sithyka Jessica Meach, the first female Cambodian to graduate from the prestigious US Military Academy at West Point (USMA).
As a teenager, she moved far away from her beloved family for the opportunity and she admitted she wanted to quit several times. But she says what motivated her to keep pushing was the Cambodian national flag stitched on her shoulder.
Sithyka, whose father is a civil servant, tells The Post that “I’ve no doubt about that [wanting to quit]. I called my mom to tell her I was quitting over six times while studying there.
“Of course, I never did in the end. But I thought about it when times got tough. The thing that kept me going was the fact that I had the Cambodian flag on my shoulder representing not just myself or the Meach family but my nation as well.”
She says many students at West Point thought about quitting at one time or another.
“I could probably take failing myself, but I could not face failing my country. My failure was bigger than just me, so I kept going,” she says.
Sithyka says West Point, located in upstate New York, is built on one of the most beautiful pieces of land she’s ever seen. The school, which is an old fort, features stone barracks and is surrounded by mountains, valleys and rivers.
“Even our classrooms were century-old barracks with historical scripts written on its walls. It is truly a breathtaking environment,” she says.
However, as cadets are constantly undergoing rigorous training programmes, she never really had a chance to appreciate the beauty of the area.
Sithyka tells The Post that “as a foreign cadet from Cambodia, my flag and where I came from was the first thing anyone at USMA would see. Many were curious because most of what they know about our beautiful country is centred on a dark period”.
So she introduced them to the broader Cambodian culture – from the beauty of Angkor to the Kingdom’s delectable cuisine.
“I am not a great cook but I cooked for my US counterparts there as well as the other foreign cadets. It was delightful to showcase how attractive Cambodia was to everyone there.
“After graduation, many of my USMA classmates made their way to our country to visit the things I told them about,” says Sithyka.
Only six Cambodians have ever enrolled at West Point. Three graduated, one quit and two are currently studying there, she says.
Hun Manet, the eldest son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, was the first Cambodian to graduate from the military academy in 1999.
Sithyka graduated in 2011 and her brother, Sovisal Jerry Meach, graduated from there in 2014.
Sithyka went on to receive her Master of Law degree in the UK and is currently undergoing technical legal training in Cambodia.
The 32-year-old married in 2015 and currently works as a legal officer at the Ministry of National Defence. She’s also a part-time lecturer for the Master of Human Rights Law programme at Pannasastra University.
She says graduating from West Point wasn’t easy. Aside from adhering to the schools’ rigorous academic standards, students had to focus on military training and hold themselves to a high level of personal conduct.
Every second of every day, students are expected to meet the high demands of the academy.
“You live, eat, breathe, study, and spend every moment with military discipline and values expected of a military officer.
“Even your conduct from how straight you stand, how polite your meal manners are, to how immaculate your bed is made is subject to stringent standards,” she says.
She says the biological differences between women and men made it tough for her to complete certain tasks.
Sithyka says: “I am physically smaller than many people, therefore it was a challenge to accomplish some physical tasks. It was also challenging because the military which USMA reflects is not very female-friendly.”
She says there was a lack of female officers to mentor other female students and that females are often expected to appear more masculine because femininity can be construed as weakness.
When Sithyka was growing up, she watched her father being offered numerous international positions while working as a civil servant. She was curious as to why he turned them down.
“I realised it was because he felt a duty to his country and because he was educated, he had to contribute back to his nation, says Sithyka.
“My father would always say that it was our job to rebuild our nation and we should never choose the easier life over the right life,” she says.
Most of the skills learned at West Point are technical and focus on science and engineering, and Sithyka majored in international comparative legal studies with an environmental engineering track.
She says she appreciates not only her father for being a role model who inspired her to serve the nation, but also her mother, who always supported her regardless of the path she took.
“The strength and courage she instilled in me made me become the woman I am today. If I was interested in sports or ‘manly’ activities, she cheered and encouraged me as I tried to become the best at it,” she says.
Preparation for West Point
To be accepted into West Point, there are academic, physical and personal requirements to meet the minimum standard to be a candidate.
She says successful candidates usually exceed these requirements and receive a nomination from their Senator (for US cadets) or Minister of Defence (foreign cadets like her).
“It was over 10 years ago that I applied, therefore, this information may not be as accurate anymore but the core of it still exists,” says Sithyka.
Candidates are expected to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a standard language test and finally, undergo a Candidate Fitness Assessment.
She says once a candidate has met these requirements, the potential candidate will go through several interviews before potentially receiving a nomination from the Minister of Defence.
“Our Minister is allowed to nominate a maximum of six candidates per year for USMA’s consideration. However, it doesn’t mean that any will receive a slot. USMA is the final decision- maker on a candidate’s acceptance.
“As it is for US candidates, the Senators can nominate but USMA conducts the final decision on who gets admitted.”
Assisting the youth
Sithyka likes to share her experience with younger colleagues, telling them that hard work, perseverance, and rigorous determination are more important characteristics than natural talent or intelligence.
“Failures are a natural progression of self-development. Stay resolute in your journey and give your best effort towards achieving it. Do this, and I have no doubt that you will reach your goal, she says.
“Our body is the most amazing machine ever created and therefore can adjust to anything. I ended up with only four hours of sleep for a few months straight at one point and I am still astonished at how I was able to do it.
“I will tell you that with your goals and directions in mind, pushing your body beyond fatigue, tiredness, and lack of sleep is possible. I do not think I have ever been as tired since I graduated but I do know that if I face it, I could do it,” she says.
She encourages young Cambodians to enlist in the military because she says it’s a great field to get into, especially to start their careers. It is a field, she says, that instils crucial values and characteristics in a person.
“From developing a love for your nation and providing service to others, to building strength, integrity, and determination, I think the military does a great job developing these aspects in young adults,” she concludes.