WASHINGTON-As a child, Tim Ziemer remembers lying in his home in the village of Ban Me Thout in southern Vietnam-then French Indochina-consumed with a burning fever from malaria. The antidote of choice at the time was quinine, which brought him along with his missionary parents and two siblings through the illness alive.
The fever "makes you almost blind-burns your lips," described Connie Fairchild, who was a next-door neighbor and family friend to the Ziemers in Vietnam and is now senior director of development at World Relief. Like everyone else, she had malaria too: "You shake. The shaking is terrible."
Today Admiral Ziemer, 63, heads up the President's Malaria Initiative, an aggressive $1.2 billion program begun in 2006 under President George W. Bush. The eradication program is supposed to reduce malaria deaths by 50 percent by next year, an objective that Ziemer says is on track to be completed. Ten years ago, the U.S. government was investing only $1 million to fight malaria in Africa-and losing.
Malaria is a fading memory in the United States, but in Africa-where Ziemer has made 16 trips as head of the Malaria Initiative-it kills almost a million people every year, almost all of them children under the age of 5. About 500 million contract the illness worldwide. The U.S. initiative is focused in 15 African countries, where malaria prevalence rates in Zambia, for example, fell by 53 percent in the first three years of the program.
One of Ziemer's chores as a child was to spray the insecticide DDT along the baseboards of his family's home to protect them from malaria-carrying mosquitos. A little bit of DDT mixed with water and sprayed on inside walls is one of the longest-lasting and cheapest protections against malaria. If a mosquito lands on the treated wall, it dies without passing the malaria parasite on to humans, and the repellant lasts for up to a year, months longer than other insecticides.
But few countries use the chemical widely because of environmental concerns that Rachel Carson introduced in her 1962 book Silent Spring. She alleged that DDT thins the eggshells of birds, threatening certain species. While those allegations have largely been disproved in years since, the perception of DDT remains, and a number of Western countries impose trade restrictions on countries that use DDT.
"The compliance is really cumbersome," said Ziemer, sitting in his office at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). On his desk is a sign: "If only Noah had swatted those two mosquitos."
If DDT is used properly, he said, "There's no scientific evidence that would require us to remove it as a public health intervention." As restrictions stand now, only four of the countries the malaria program works in use DDT as their insecticide of choice, while Ziemer argues that laying off insecticides like DDT means, "We'll lose more lives, there's no doubt about it."
The funding for the program comes to an end next year, so Ziemer is working to convince Congress to continue the malaria budget, even as most politicians are thinking about domestic concerns like jobs. But Ziemer said he's confident, and that lawmakers have expressed support for the malaria program "in a very generous and aggressive way."
Ziemer is a rarity in Washington: a Bush appointee reappointed by President Obama, which he said was "unsolicited and unexpected." Mark Dybul, the head of a major health success of the Bush administration, the AIDS program PEPFAR, lost his job a few days after President Obama's inauguration. Dybul made choices on thorny issues like the U.S. government's promotion of abstinence efforts, issues that Ziemer doesn't have to bother with. Malaria prevention is a bit more basic: insecticide and mosquito nets.
Still, Obama has not personally owned PEPFAR or the Malaria Initiative the way President Bush did. To this point, Ziemer has not met the president, though he saw Bush often. "Frankly, in the big scheme of things, malaria is just one of the moving parts. I don't feel shunned or unappreciated," Ziemer said. "[President Obama] has mentioned the significance of malaria, so we're doing all right."
Ziemer has survived more than a change in administrations. Growing up in southern Vietnam, he watched the French leave the country and lived through the build-up to war with the north. In the midst of political upheaval, his parents, Bob and Marie, worked with a mission team translating the Bible into the regional dialect. They opened a school, a church, a clinic, and a leprosarium (leprosy was a scourge on Vietnam at the time, and remains a problem today).
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.
After 31 years in the military, Ziemer took a top think tank job in Washington, usually a prize for high-profile public servants, but he quit after a few months because it didn't suit him. Then came a phone call asking him to become the executive director of World Relief, the quasi-independent relief arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. He accepted the offer at a time when the organization was reeling from the economic impact of 9/11 and the halt of refugee arrivals in the United States, the bulk of its domestic work.
Ziemer consolidated the organization's offices in New York, Atlanta, and Chicago into one headquarters in Baltimore. "We can attribute the fact that we are still here to his skills and abilities," said Dan Kosten, the director of World Relief's domestic refugee program.
World Relief has been at the forefront of efforts to fight AIDS and malaria overseas, so when President Bush named Ziemer the head of his new Malaria Initiative in 2006, Ziemer slipped into the role easily, working in a program that proved successful by relying on the alliance of government and private nonprofit efforts.
"Those of us who are working in the secular community, when it comes to administering programs we have to be neutral, open, and objective," he said. "The faith-based NGOs must not abandon that spiritual component to what they do. Their big challenge is to make sure the world doesn't see their engagement as a means to an end. They don't exist to proselytize, they exist to show the whole reason for faith-that is to reach out, just like Christ did, to love the poor and suffering, and be Christ to them in body, soul, and mind."