MIGHTY 25: Kimberly Mitchell went from a Vietnamese orphanage to serving America
Kimberly Mitchell has spent her life dedicated to the United States, the country she credits with giving her life. But it started in the middle of war.
“My mother had been killed during the Vietnam war. I was found by a man who was escaping the village and I was apparently trying to nurse my dead mother on the side of the road,” she shared. “He ran with me in his arms across a bridge that the South Vietnamese Marines were about to blow up to hopefully slow the North Vietnamese. They saw the bundle in his arms and investigated. He told them he brought me as far as he could and they needed to save me.”
The Marine who took her from her savior’s arms brought Mitchell to Sacred Heart Orphanage. A few months later an airman was running supplies to the area. When the nuns placed baby number 899 into his arms, it was love at first sight.
“In September of 1972, when I was 10 months old I was fortunate enough to be adopted and brought to the United States to start my new life to be raised as an American kid in a military family,” she smiled.
When her adoptive father decided to retire from the Air Force, they planted roots in Wisconsin near her adoptive mother’s family.
“It was a small town community where the neighbors go out of their way to help each other. I was the only minority person in my elementary, middle and high school,” Mitchell shared.
She admitted it wasn’t always easy as she got older to be the different one - the constant questions of where she was from, why her skin was different or hair so dark. Mitchell likened that feeling of being different with how veterans feel transitioning out of service.
“As I got older I was very attracted to the military and just knew I needed to serve this country,” she added. “My dad wanted me to go to the Air Force Academy and honestly that’s where I told everyone I was going when they asked.”
Until Mitchell met a retired Navy admiral. When he heard where she wanted to go, he got her information and she suddenly started getting pamphlets and information about the U.S. Naval Academy.
“All the pictures were of people who were Midshipmen smiling and having fun. I was like, ‘Wow, this looks like a great place to go’. Propaganda does work,” she laughed.
Two weeks before reporting for Indoc at the Naval Academy in 1992, there was a massive storm that rolled across her hometown. A lightning strike killed her father as he was trying to take care of the cattle on her family farm.
“The Naval Academy allowed me to take a year off from school so I could take care of my family. I returned and graduated in 1996 as a Surface Warfare Officer,” Mitchell said.
She went from ship to ship and completed shore command tours at the Pentagon.
“My last two years in the Navy were working for Admiral Mike Mullen who was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Mitchell said. “I was the Deputy Director for the Office of Warrior and Family Support. The mission was to go out and work with communities across the nation and really find out what successful transition and reintegration are for our veterans or military families and our Gold Star families.”
It was here she found her niche in advocating and determining the needed resources for the military community to be successful. Mitchell left the Navy in 2012 to pursue work in the nonprofit world, continuing to serve.
“In 2017, I moved to San Diego to be the CEO of Veterans Village to care for our homeless veterans. Many of them had nothing and had even lost the will to live. I made it my mission to care for them and ensure they had all the resources possible to rebuild their lives,” she said.
Mitchell was recruited to National University three years later to create programming for veterans and military families. In 2022, she received a call from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I was asked by the VA and the Biden Administration to come in to be a VSO liaison and a Senior Advisor to Secretary McDonough,” she explained. “I can't think of a better job where I can take everything that I've learned in the Navy or all these different jobs that I've had and different opportunities. It’s like I was able to wrap it all up to be in this position at the VA to really have an impact and work with our VSOs.”
Mitchell credits everything in her life to veterans, especially Vietnam War Veterans.
“For me, it’s full circle. I wouldn't be here having this opportunity at VA nor would I have been able to serve in the United States Navy had it not been for the Vietnam veteran serving in Vietnam during the war. I know it's very controversial. But to me, what I know is, I'm here because of them. And it's its obligation to do everything in my power,” she explained. “I made a promise to a Vietnam Veteran that I will continue to do everything to ensure that their generation and all Vietnam Veterans have the services and resources that they need. I’ll also ensure that no other generation after them ever encounters what they encountered after service to this nation.”
In March 2013 she was reunited with the South Vietnamese Marine, Bao Tran, who rescued her on the side of the road. They met again on the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and Vietnam War Veterans Day.
“Apparently he’d seen an article about me in 2011 when I went back to Vietnam and was able to find me a year later,” she added.
As for what she’d like people to walk away with from her story, it was easy.
“I want people to realize that they can make an impact, make a difference in this world and in the lives of others,” Mitchell said. “That one act of kindness can change the course of a life and I know it’s true from personal experience.”
You can learn more about Mitchell and follow her on LinkedIn here.