A Marine awarded the Purple Heart after surviving an explosion during the Iraq war was shot to death and a family friend was mortally wounded at a barbecue near Long Beach’s Little Cambodia in an ambush for which police said Monday they had no motive.
Lance Cpl. Sok Khak Ung died in his father’s arms early Sunday morning. They had each survived a war, the elder in Cambodia, his son in Iraq.
“He was calling for me. I was holding him,” the silver-haired father, Yoeun Ung, whispered Monday, standing barefoot before his family’s simple Buddhist shrine where candles and incense burned.
“He said, ‘It’s OK, Daddy, don’t worry about me,’ ” the father recalled, his halting words translated from Khmer as he rubbed away tears. “He was a good boy. Yes, I was proud.”
Also killed was Vouthy Tho, 21, a Long Beach musician. Tho died Monday night at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, where he had been on a life-support system.
Ung, a 22-year-old combat engineer, was on weekend leave from Camp Pendleton, said cousin Vanthy Cheng.
“Before the ambulance came, we prayed and burned incense for God to save his life,” Cheng said. “For Sok to die in Iraq, fighting for his country, would be meaningful. To be shot [with] no provocation, watch him die in his dad’s arms! It’s so sad, I could only cry and watch and pray.”
Long Beach police and witnesses at the residence in the 1200 block of East 7th Street said a hooded gunman sprang from behind a shoulder-high fence about 1:30 a.m. Sunday and opened fire on the family members and friends who had gathered to celebrate Sok’s visit.
Sok Ung was born in a refugee camp in the Philippines on June 13, 1981, said his father. The elder Ung said his family was sponsored by the International Rescue Committee for relocation to Texas later that year.
Sok’s parents split up about a year later, and his mother moved to San Francisco. The elder Ung relocated to Long Beach in 1988.
Ung was raised in Northern California but remained close to his many siblings and father, relatives said. His father had served in the Cambodian armed forces for 15 years and was a company commander, but Sok was drawn to the military because it promised a paid college education to a young man from poor neighborhood.
He took the oath of U.S. citizenship just a month ago and had planned to take the SAT exam Monday.
Instead, on Monday four Buddhist monks in orange robes conducted a special prayer ceremony of chants at the elder Ung’s apartment, where 24 family members and friends knelt on the living room floor, unfurnished but for thick rugs, pillows along the walls and burning religious candles and incense.
About half an hour later, the prayer group was joined by Marine Gunnery Sgt. Graham Hilson, two other Marines and a Navy chaplain. Hilson was Ung’s commanding officer in the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Hilson said Ung volunteered for the unit, which on the first day of battle last spring captured 270 Iraqi soldiers.
The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit moved on to the hot spot of Nasiriyah, where on April 1 it created a diversion while other forces rescued Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, Hilson said.
In mid-April, Ung and two others were injured when a fellow Marine stepped on a Dixie cup-sized bomblet that had been dropped days earlier by American warplanes but failed to detonate. Ung spent three days recovering from shrapnel wounds in a medical unit, then insisted on returning to action. He was in Iraq for a month and a half before returning to Camp Pendleton, Hilson said.
“He was a Marine’s Marine,” Hilson added. Sok Ung had been scheduled to muster out of the corps Oct. 31.
At the time of the shooting, Tho and Ung had been free-flow rapping about Long Beach versus San Francisco, said Chanthan Loeung, 20. Loeung and Tho were partners in a rap duo called Self Image. They named the group after a reference in their 12th-grade economics textbook at Woodrow Wilson High School, said Loeung.
“Sok grew up in San Francisco with his mom,” said half-brother Vibol Ung, also 22, who sat with them at the barbecue. “He was going back and forth with Vouthy about how Long Beach is bad because of all these types of shootings. Then he gets shot.”
Vibol Ung described the shots as “sparks” piercing the darkness.
Police detectives have no motive for the shootings and are seeking the public’s help in their investigation. Friends and relatives of the victims speculated Monday that the unprovoked attack was some sort of gang initiation killing or a case of mistaken identity in a central Long Beach neighborhood that is primarily Latino but surrounded by areas of Asian and African American residents.
Witnesses said it appeared that the gunman had opened fire on the group of four or five from a raised deck in the neighboring home’s backyard. Police said descriptions of the assailant varied, but all agreed he was wearing a blue hooded shirt.
Ung was wounded in the head and torso; Tho was shot once in the head, police said.
Relatives and friends said Tho graduated from Wilson High and lived in Long Beach. He dreamed of becoming a successful rapper and felt passionately about songs of love and struggle, his rap partner said.
Friends said Tho worked as a host at a restaurant in Lakewood, then quit to attend Long Beach City College, where he was studying underwater welding.
“He was a fun-loving guy,” Vibol Ung said. ""He was always up, and he was always there for you.”
Earlier this month, the two victims, friends for years, had been photographed together during a visit to Knott’s Berry Farm. They enjoyed hanging out together most weekends when Ung was up from the base. .
After returning from his volunteer duty with the expeditionary unit, Ung was stationed at Camp Pendleton and made frequent visits to his father’s modest home, which sits at the back of a deep lot on busy 7th Street.
Sok’s sister, Davann Ung, said he had wanted to go to a karaoke bar Saturday night, but she had insisted they barbecue at home.
“It is so sad I still can’t believe it,” Vibol Ung said. “I saw a spark, then I reacted, then another spark, and then he was gone.”
By Monday afternoon, the Buddhist monks had paid their visit to chant and pray. Vanthy said the monks would offer blessings that would allow her cousin to “fly to heaven.”