For some troops, Cobra Gold a Thai homecoming
U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Paradon Silpasornprasit, or Lt. Sil for short, came to Thailand to work in the Cobra Gold exercise.
But the 34-year-old officer also is seeing his homeland and much of his family for the first time.
Silpasornprasit was born in Thailand to Thai parents. When he was 3, his mother married a U.S. serviceman and they moved away. He hadn’t returned since.
“I enjoyed the opportunity to come back to my ‘homeland,’” he said. “There’s a sense of belonging. This is my heritage.”
Last week, during a short break from his job, Silpasornprasit saw his grandmother for the first time in 30 years. He met many other relatives for the first time.
His tale even made him a local celebrity. Silpasornprasit’s Cobra Gold role is as an Air Force public relations officer. But that, he indicated, didn’t prepare him for all the attention he generated after his story appeared on local television stations and in Thai newspapers. He’s now recognized almost everywhere he goes here.
Silpasornprasit brushes this off as his 15 minutes of fame. He figures people have stopped him on the street for photographs because he has the same first name as a famous Thai tennis player — Paradon — and at 5 feet, 11 inches, is taller than most Thais.
That, he said, and because Thais are proud to see one of their own become a U.S. military officer.
In Cobra Gold, Silpasornprasit also has been an asset overcoming language barriers with his Thai counterparts.
“I didn’t sign on to be a translator,” he said, but having both the language skills and the military background lets him help when civilian translators might be baffled. “It’s helped that I understand the military lingo,” he said.
Silpasornprasit attributes his height to U.S. nutrition. “A lot of hamburgers and pizza,” he said.
And, now, a lot of Thai food. “I have a rule. If I can find it in America, I don’t want to eat it,” he said. The really spicy stuff is the exception, the lieutenant said: “I can’t eat Thai hot.” But generally, he said, “I am eating everything since I’ve been here.”
Silpasornprasit’s regular military job is as chief of media relations for the 15th Airlift Wing at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.
He described seeing his former homeland as a blessing, but said it does carry some sadness: He’s realized there are aspects of Thai life that he’ll never know. “Missing out on 30 years of culture. I do miss that,” he said.
A small size and sweet smile belie this former Thai marine’s tough core.
Angsana Panruska is working this Cobra Gold as a translator for the U.S. Navy explosive ordinance disposal unit, conducting combined training with the Thai Marines. But Panruska is a former airborne marine with six years and 250 jumps to her credit.
She left the service last year to attend college and start a business. But, she said, the thrill of Cobra Gold, in which she’s taken part the past several years, drew her back.
Working as a translator helps build her English skills and lets the 25-year-old stay with the action. Her military experience, she said, is helping her do the job. While on active duty, Panruska learned jungle survival and rescue jumping while working at the Thai marine airborne school.
In all her jumps, she was hurt only once, by a burn that left a large scar on her right forearm — which Panruska shrugs off as nothing serious. She’s glad to own a small business and be a student now, she said, but there’s a lot she misses.
“I had a great time with the marines,” she said. “I still miss the jumping.”
Other translators take part in Cobra Gold to polish their English skills. Wearing flack vests or donning earplugs during live-fire exercises are just bonuses to the job.
Suwanna Bunlah, known to most as Mam, took the job to speak to native English speakers, she said. At her university, where she studied English, only three native English speakers were there to teach the language.
But Cobra Gold offers more than just linguistic opportunity. Bunlah was “excited to see the training,” Bunlah said. Even though deciphering the military lingo wasn’t always easy, the 22-year-old said, she had fun: “I hope to do it next year.”