AUGUSTA, Maine — On Jan. 11, Sgt. San Pao, now a team leader with the 152nd Maintenance Company, Maine Army National Guard in Augusta, was awarded the Maine State Silver Star at the Augusta Armory for his actions while deployed to Iraq with the 133rd Engineer Battalion, Maine Army National Guard.
The Maine State Silver Star is awarded to veterans who are former prisoners of war or were awarded the Purple Heart. Pao was wounded during an ambush in April 2004.
Pao, of Standish, is a Cambodian refugee who has lived in the U.S. since he was 2 years old. He was born in a refugee camp in Thailand where his parents were sent after escaping from the Khmer Rouge.
While in Iraq, Pao volunteered for the battalion’s force protection team. Pao’s team was besieged by insurgent fire while driving a convoy of gun trucks through congested traffic, according to a press release from the Maine National Guard.
Despite extensive equipment damage and the dislocation of his neck and back, Pao organized his crew and returned to defend fellow soldiers from enemy fire until the arrival of sheriff’s trucks and a medevac unit.
Pao was taken to the Combat Support Hospital, where he learned of the death of one team member and began his slow recovery.
Capt. Michael Steinbuchel, Pao’s commander in Iraq, commended his bravery.
“He had a sense of duty and loyalty to his fellow soldiers and the mission,” Steinbuchel said in the press release. “Despite what he went through that day he got right back up. I was inspired that he wanted to get right back to the mission. Pao always had a good attitude and wanted to be there, still wants to be there.”
After an extensive immigration process, Pao soon will become an American citizen.
The 133rd Engineer Battalion, Maine Army National Guard, is scheduled to deploy again next year along with a large portion of the Maine Army National Guard. Pao has since changed units and will not deploy with the 133rd but says he would go again if needed, and will never forget his time in Iraq.
Reflecting on the day in April 2004 that changed his life, Pao said, “War is an environment that inadvertently creates changes within one’s self, I am changed. I don’t forget the luxuries of life like driving to a friend’s house, pumping gas, waking up. I can see the other side of life now.”