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Survivor

"Survivor" Continued...

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

One day as a boy Ziemer drove out with his father to a remote area, where a man was living with leprosy in a lean-to. His father brought the man back to the mission compound for treatment. The man's family soon joined him in the village.

"Why was this man kicked out and ostracized? I remember distinctly trying to process that," he recalled. "Medical missions, underline missions, is to re­store, both physically and spiritually. . . . His life went from total abandonment to [being] restored to do normal things in that culture."

On Jan. 31, 1968, when Ziemer was a senior at Wheaton College, the Tet Offensive began in South Vietnam. His parents were still living and working in Ban Me Thout. As the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong launched their cross-border offensive, Ban Me Thout came under siege. Injured and panicked civilians swamped the missionaries' clinic, looking for protection.

As the attacks raged, Ziemer's father left the bunker sheltering the local missionaries to seek permission from the North Vietnamese to move the critically injured to a regional hospital. When he walked out with his arms raised, the soldiers shot him.

Then the soldiers threw hand grenades into the bunker that held other missionaries and nurses. Ziemer's mother was the only one to survive. She tried to pretend she was dead, but the soldiers saw her breathing and dragged her out of the rubble. She saw her husband, barely alive, and tried to go to him, but the soldiers held her back. She watched him die from a distance. The soldiers then blew up other missionaries' homes. Connie Fairchild, the Ziemers' neighbor who was also in college at the time, saw pictures in the press of her bombed home, though her parents weren't in the village at the time.

Wounded, Ziemer's mother stayed in communist captivity until the soldiers believed that she was going to die. They dropped her in a ditch as they left the village. With help from locals, she made her way to a clinic and soon was on a U.S. military flight back to Andrews Air Force Base-the only woman on board a plane full of soldiers. Ziemer was there to meet the plane, climbing aboard as soon as it touched down. Under the bandages from his mother's 18 grenade wounds, he noticed her prematurely gray hair.

"I was going to be the big guy and make her strong, and I started weeping," he said.

Forty years later, Ziemer recites the verse from the hymn that his mother had written down and handed to him: "When upon life's billows you are tempest tossed / When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost / Count your many blessings, name them one by one / And it will surprise you what the Lord has done."

She also wrote down those blessings: She had the privilege of being married to Ziemer's father, of having three children, of serving the Vietnamese people, of having received good medical care, of knowing Jesus Christ.

In their 20 years of work in Vietnam, Ziemer's parents believed that the church, school, and clinic in Ban Me Thout shouldn't depend on American missionaries-this before "sustainability" became a catchphrase among missions and development experts. About a year before the missionaries were killed, the regional churches became self-supporting, based on a business plan that Bob Ziemer had devised years earlier. Six months before the attack, a Vietnamese took over administration of the hospital. One month before the attack, another national took over leadership of the school. The week before Bob Ziemer was killed, he sent his translation of the Bible into the local dialect to the British Foreign Bible Society, and that Bible has been printed and distributed.

"It really wasn't about them, it was about God at work in this world-restoring, meeting needs," Ziemer recalled.

Adm. Ziemer hasn't set foot in Vietnam since, though his sister is a missionary there now. But not too long after his father's death he returned-in the air. Facing the draft out of college, Ziemer joined the Navy, became a pilot, and flew more than 550 combat missions over Vietnam. He supported the U.S. involvement in the country that was his childhood home, but he explains that he wasn't seeking vengeance for his father's death: "That's the Lord's business."

The United States pulled out of Vietnam by 1975, but the Cold War was still in full swing. Ziemer's job shifted to chasing Soviet submarines, "Tom Clancy kind of stuff." When the United States quit hunting Red Octobers, Ziemer began conducting special operations in the Gulf leading up to the first Iraq War. He rose to become Rear Admiral and in 1996 took over command of the military's largest fleet in Norfolk, Va., where he assumed the unpleasant task of downsizing the base.

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