Ronnie and Susan Bouknight look at pictures of their son Steven as they talk about his marriage to Sochea Sam in Cambodia. Steven died in a fall on Upper Table Rock on April 28, and the Bouknights hope to get a visa for Sochea to come live with them in Medford. - Mail Tribune / Jim Craven

Love and sorrow for Cambodian bride

As Steven Bouknight's loved ones assembled May 5 in a Medford church to grieve the 21-year-old's death together, his bride was sobbing alone halfway across the world.

Sochea Bouknight, Steven's 20-year-old wife for all of seven weeks, remained stuck in her native Cambodia, snarled in red tape.

Steven's parents, Ronnie and Susan Bouknight, had pleaded with the U.S. Embassy to grant Sochea an emergency visa so she could be at the funeral with the in-laws she'd never met.

Steven's body even laid in cold storage for two weeks as the Bouknights begged to get Sochea on a plane to Medford, where the young couple had planned to settle in a guest house behind the Bouknights' west Medford home.

But U.S. officials in Phnom Penh said no, without any explanation, family members said.

"It was appalling," Susan Bouknight said.

The Bouknights had no choice but to cremate Steven's body May 10, 12 days after he fell to his death while hiking Upper Table Rock outside of White City.

Sochea missed her last chance to see the man she married in a lavish Cambodian wedding.

"This wasn't some mail-order bride thing," Susan Bouknight said. "It was one of those really special loves.

"And she couldn't even come touch him to say goodbye."

Now the Bouknights hope to salvage what's left of the couple's short union.

They want a permanent visa for Sochea to live in Medford with her in-laws, and Susan Bouknight is putting her pit-bull-like personality at work to make that happen.

She's solicited the help of U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, whose staff has made inquiries on behalf of the family. She's peppered the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia with requests, documents and even letters and poems Steven wrote to Sochea to prove this was love and not some opportunistic girl's meal-ticket to America.

"We're trying to do things legally, the right way, but we just don't understand the embassy's logic," Susan Bouknight said.

"I don't think we're ever going to put up with it," she said. "We'll fight it until our last breath."

The marriage between Sochea and Steven cemented a 27-year-old relationship of depth and breadth between two families from opposite ends of the globe.

It started in 1980, when Susan Bouknight met and befriended Chhorn Non, a Cambodian immigrant who lived around the corner from her family's apartment on Columbus Avenue.

Non taught English to new immigrants and was a frequent traveler to Cambodia, where he tried to set up schools. He then married another Cambodian native and brought her to Medford three years later.

Chhorn and Linda Non's daughter, Chandvattei, and Steven were born two weeks apart in 1986.

While the kids played together, the parents kicked a Hacky Sack around. They took turns baby-sitting.

Steven over time came to call Chhorn and Linda "Lopok" and "Nana," words of reverence in Cambodia.

"Our families have always been intertwined," Susan Bouknight said.

Through his years, Steven developed into a sensitive and complex young man who exuded charm and charisma, family members said.

He regularly watched professional wrestling with an 80-year-old, housebound neighbor, just so she could have a little company. He sang in the South Medford High School choir, and wanted one day to join the U.S. Army despite a bum knee.

Steven longed to have a family of his own in recent years, but dating was a series of relationships that always crashed and burned.

In 2006, Steven had a serious girlfriend with two young children. He acted like a father around them, Susan Bouknight said.

Steven later hocked his pickup truck to lend money to the girlfriend, who later dumped him.

"Like women who find butt-head guys, he just couldn't find a good girl," Susan Bouknight said.

As Steven brooded over this failed romance, Linda Non had an idea.

"I say, 'Why don't you meet my niece?' " she said.

Sochea Sam was 19, freshly moved from her village to live with her grandmother and attend school in Cambodia's capital city of Phnom Penh. She, too, was bubbly and sensitive and a family-oriented kid who liked to joke and "ham it up," much like Steven, Susan Bouknight said.

The Bouknights and Nons decided it was worth a shot, so they had Steven and Sochea exchange photographs.

Steven was enamored with Sochea's porcelain skin, her long black hair and engaging smile. Sochea, too, took to Steven's red curls, tall frame and soft grin.

With their mutual attraction instant, Steven and Sochea put the whirl in whirlwind.

"All the giggles on the phone, everything," Susan Bouknight said.

After six months of e-mails, phone calls and pictures, the couple decided to wed.

"They had the same ideas," said Linda Non, 50, of Medford. "That's how people fall in love."

Steven flew to Cambodia in late February. He was soon followed by the Nons, who were on a long-planned extended trip to visit family there.

The Bouknights, both in their 50s and on disability, couldn't afford the flight. So the Nons stood in for the Bouknights during their traditional Cambodian wedding March 10.

The ceremony lasted three days and drew 300 people. Nine hundred attended the reception. Bright traditional dress and swords gave way to western suits, tuxedoes and white gowns like costume changes.

"Everyone who saw them together said it was magical," Susan Bouknight said. "Even the photographer who took their pictures was so impressed by them. The photographer even cried."

So did Steven two weeks later when he flew home to Medford alone, eager to clear the route for his bride to follow.

Working two jobs and still holding onto his military dream, Steven began a workout regimen that included regular hikes up Upper Table Rock. There, on April 28, the worlds of two families on two continents fell apart.

As Steven peered over a ledge, rocks gave way under his feet. He fell 30 feet and died from injuries while in the arms of his brother, Billy Simmonds.

That night, the loss spread across the International Dateline.

Linda Non, still in Cambodia, became physically ill when Susan Bouknight called with the news.

A group of family members told Sochea. She collapsed in a pile of sobs that still have yet to subside.

"I can't talk long with her because she's still crying," Non said. "I don't know what to say.

"This broke my heart," she said.

Immediately, Susan Bouknight began telephoning the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, seeking an emergency visa so Sochea could attend the funeral. Embassy officials asked for a death certificate, but Steven's body was still at the state medical examiner's office.

The family sent a news clipping about the accident instead.

Sochea went to the embassy, asking for the visa. Officials said no and sent her home.

The Bouknights then faxed the embassy copies of Steven's death certificate, the couple's shared e-mails, letters about other family members in the United States, and an affidavit vowing the Bouknights' financial support for Sochea.

This time, embassy staff called Sochea "a silly girl," told her to stop crying and go home, Susan Bouknight said.

One time, embassy officials asked for a letter from Steven detailing how he wanted Sochea to move to the United States. Steven can't write one, the Bouknights responded. He's dead.

Two e-mail inquiries on the family's behalf from Smith's staff in Washington, D.C., have gone unanswered, Smith spokesman R.C. Hammond said.

"We're trying to help the family to the best of our abilities," Hammond said. "We've yet to hear back from them."

In an e-mail response to the Mail Tribune, J. Jeff Daigle, the embassy's public-affairs officer in Phnom Penh, said visa applications are protected by privacy laws and cannot be discussed with the media.

"Therefore, I am unable to confirm or deny that a visa application was made in this case," Daigle wrote.

The Bouknights said they are tired of what they consider to be perpetual snubs from the embassy.

They just want the government to get out of the way and let their daughter-in-law come to Medford.

"It's hard. It tests your faith," Susan Bouknight said. "But all these people from all around the world came together for Steven and Sochea.

"I just have to remind myself that it's part of a bigger picture," she said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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