Mission of Hope
When Bill Kimball returned to Vietnam in 1988, he was on a mission.
But unlike the actions of war 20 years earlier, his new mission was to heal.
The South Lake Tahoe resident is president of the first veterans’ group to return to Vietnam. “Vets with a Mission” is a charitable group concerned with healing Vietnam’s war wounds. The group builds medical facilities, works with orphans and provides church support to the Vietnamese.
The legacy began in 1968.
“I was 18, young and naive,” Kimball said.
He first stepped onto Vietnamese soil as a Private First Class with the U.S. Army. Due to a lung infection, he was shipped back to the states a few months later. Some would say he was lucky, but his ordeal was just beginning.
“Like most vets, when I came back there was a lot of hostility,” Kimball said. “So, we learned to suppress the whole experience.”
Bill went on with his life. He got married, had kids, and didn’t do or say much about his war experience.
Until he watched the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial on television in 1982.
“I just broke down,” Kimball said. “It was like someone had just taken a 2-by-4 and cracked me on the head.”
Kimball saw it as a turnaround for the entire country. He saw vets beginning to heal themselves and the country starting to heal as well. His healing was intense. He felt periods of ‘survivors guilt,’ a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He turned his pain into healing by writing six anthologies and biographies about the war. He then began speaking publicly and met other vets who were healing.
They all came to the same conclusion in 1988, to go back.
“We went back to see, we were called to reconcile,” Kimball said. “We forget, Vietnam is not a war, it is a people.”
As the team began to meet the people of Vietnam, they were surprised by the warmth they received. They found themselves talking with former Viet Cong soldiers as if they were brothers. Tears flowed freely.
Since then, Kimball has taken more than 500 vets back to reconcile with their past. He continues to work on reconciliation.
Vets with a Mission has built 17 rural health care clinics that offer basic surgery, dental work, family planning and preventative medicine. With high bicycle and motorcycle accident rates and land mines still in the ground, orthopedics is another area of need.
“We’ve found bombs laying all over, the kids will pick them up and play with them,” he said.
Another level of aid that Kimball has been able to provide is spiritual.
Although the Vietnamese government frowns on Christianity, the religion has seen an upswing in recent years. In 1989, Vets with a Mission was the first group allowed to bring Bibles into the country. They supplied 5,000 Bibles to the Vietnamese.
The results are staggering. Out of 400 districts, Tan Phu, where the first model clinic was built, ranked 398 for economic development and health standards. Two years later the same district was ranked second in the country.
Kimball says this is the culmination of 15 years of working with vets at home, with vets coming to grips with the war itself. Since the war brought these countries together and interwove their histories, the healing has to be mutual.
“Our blood is mixed in the same rice field,” Kimball said.
What: Ceremony in Observance of Veterans Day
When: 11 a.m. today
Where: American Legion Hall, 2748 U.S. Highway 50
Following will be an open house of the facility. The public is invited to attend.
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