As she looked at the three Khmer Rouge soldiers that had just stepped out of the Cambodian jungle, Mary Carver-Stiehler thought she was going to die.

Several years earlier, in 1994, a trio of backpackers had been kidnapped and murdered not far from this very mountain road, less than an hour from her home of Kampot. Carver-Stiehler — who said she was veiled like a Muslim woman at the time — was accompanied by her Baptist missionary husband, their translator and the taxi driver. Her infant son lay sleeping on her lap.

"'Put your head down, don't say anything. Don't open up the window, don't open the door,'" Carver-Stiehler said the taxi driver told her.

Carver-Stiehler said she tried to stay hidden and protect her son, but as the driver and soldiers screamed at each other, the baby awoke and began to cry. One of the soldiers tapped on her window with his AK-47, and Carver-Stiehler's head covering fell aside, revealing her blonde hair and blue eyes.

Abruptly, the lead soldier told his companions to let the taxi pass.

"We can’t explain what happened, but all of a sudden they all cleared out, they let us go,” Carver-Stiehler said during an April 2013 interview.

Carver-Stiehler, a firefighter and author who now lives in Camden, said she moved to Cambodia in the early 1990s "kicking and screaming" after her then-husband's decision to become a Baptist missionary.

"[He] went from one extreme and addiction to another," Carver-Stiehler said. "He went from drinking to religion, which was very dangerous.”

Carver-Stiehler said she was open about the fact that she never felt "called," but lived in Cambodia for more than a decade, raising seven children and three Cambodian foster children in the rural province of Kampot.

At the time, Carver-Stiehler said, Kampot was one of two districts still heavily populated with Khmer Rouge soldiers. Citizens were safe if they lived in town, but anyone outside its limits were "fair game." Traveling from place to place meant employing armed guards.

“You moved fast and you moved together and you stayed together,” said Carver-Stiehler.

Carver-Stiehler said after surviving grenade attacks and two military coups “you don’t fear a whole lot."

Following her divorce, Carver-Stiehler moved back to Camden, a place she'd visited frequently in her youth and from which her family hailed. Though three of Carver-Stiehler's children still live at home, several others have since returned to Cambodia. Carver-Stiehler's eldest daughter married a Cambodian man, she said, while another daughter is engaged to the nephew of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Carver-Stiehler said she initially decided to become a firefighter to spend more time with second husband Camden Assistant Fire Chief Robert Stiehler, a third-generation fireman. Though 50 years old at the time, Carver-Stiehler said she told herself, "‘I don’t just want to be a firefighter, I want to go through everything.'"

Problems with claustrophobia plagued Carver-Stiehler during Firefighter 1 and 2 training courses, and several times she considered giving up.

“There was a lot of times when I’d go home crying, and [thinking], ‘I’m gonna quit,’ and the next morning, I’d be like, ‘Nope,’” Carver-Stiehler said.

While participating in an academy training session at Camden Fire Department, Carver-Stiehler said she was reprimanded by Chief Chris Farley after getting stuck four times during a drill that simulated limited visibility.

Carver-Stiehler said she and Farley clashed at the time because "we're too much alike."

“I love him, though. He’s the best chief, he really is," Carver-Stiehler said. "I can’t blame him for anything.”

Carver-Stiehler called Farley her “biggest supporter," and said she informed him immediately when, four months after that drill, she passed her firefighting certifications at age 51.

Farley said although female firefighters have been part of the fire department since the 1970s, Carver-Stiehler's dedication is "commendable."

“I think he put me through extra just to make sure that I could get through it,” Carver-Stiehler said, adding Farley defended Carver-Stiehler against skeptics who criticized her age and gender. “He was pushing me because he wanted to see what he could get out of me.”

Firefighting has "given me a chance to broaden myself, and experience things that I never normally would’ve," Carver-Stiehler said. "I love the whole culture.”

Addressing the ever-present potential for injury or death, Carver-Stiehler said, “You don’t think about it."

Carver-Stiehler said she didn't have time to be scared when, during her first structure fire, she discovered she was wearing the wrong mask.

"All I knew was I had to do what I had to do, what I had been trained to," Carver-Stiehler said. “You don’t have time to think, you have only time to do think about what’s going on and how to keep your guys safe.”

Carver-Stiehler said despite the adverse circumstances, she came out of the fire smiling, "because I was with the best [team] I could possibly have been with.”

In addition to her career as a firefighter, Carver-Stiehler is a published author of time-travel/historical romance "The Kings of Angkor: Army of a Thousand Elephants," written under the name Mary Moriarty.

Carver-Stiehler said her ex-husband effectively prohibited Carver-Stiehler from reading during their years in Cambodia, she decided to write instead, which she called "a real outlet for me over there."

“It was more like therapy, just to help me, because it was starting to really fall apart," Carver-Stiehler said. “Everything that I read, he would screen. So it took me a year after I came back…to give myself permission to be able to read.”

One of Carver-Stiehler's sons — filmmaker Brendan Moriarty — enlisted her aid in conducting genealogical research about Cambodian kings, while one of her daughters passed along a thousand-year-old book written by a Chinese diplomat regarding daily life at Angkor Wat, both of which informed "The Kings of Angkor."

Carver-Stiehler said she is currently preparing a paranormal vampire romance novel for June 2013 self-publication through Amazon.com, while a second "Kings of Angkor" novel — "Land of the Golden Towers" — is due out later this year.

Though Carver-Stiehler said she can't foresee being able to perform interior firefighting work indefinitely, she said she would encourage other women to try it.

“Chief [Farley] has been a really strong advocate of women, and he’s worked with other women in the fire service, but he’s not going to give you an easy time of it,” Carver-Stiehler said. “I wish I’d found [firefighting] sooner, I really do. I love it.”

Camden Herald reporter Bane Okholm can be reached at 236-8511 ext. 304 or by email at bokholm@courierpublicationsllc.com.