James and Kim Mitchell. Photo courtesy of author.
No one who joined our VBC Happy Hour with Kim Mitchell and Bao Tran in 2020 will ever forget their gripping story of how a South Vietnamese Marine rescued an orphaned baby from streets of Quang Tri City during the Easter Offensive of 1972. Today, that baby, Kim Mitchell, is a Navy veteran and advocate for service members, veterans and military families. A graduate of the US Naval Academy, Kim will be our special guest for our Vietnam Veterans Day event at Soldiers & Sailors Hall & Museum on Tuesday, March 29, 6:00pm-8:30pm. All our welcome to join us at this event, either in-person or online, and all Vietnam Veterans registered for it will receive individual recognition and a gift bag as a token of honor for their service.
If you’d like to understand Kim’s special connection to Vietnam Veterans, read her story below, which was published in our Spring 2022 issue of VBC Magazine.
Every once in a while, I’m reminded that I’m an immigrant.
In my memory, I’ve always been Kim Mitchell, the kid who grew up on a farm in Northern Wisconsin. So, it surprised me when I heard that President George W. Bush wanted to paint my portrait and include my story in his book, Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants.
For a long time, I didn’t really know my story. I knew I’d been adopted by my father, Air Force TSgt James Mitchell, in 1972. My dad was stationed in Da Nang as a chaplain’s assistant. One of his regular stops was the nearby Sacred Heart Orphanage, where he brought supplies, gifts, and clothes to the nuns.
One day, the nuns placed me in his arms. I was just one of many crying babies. They said I’d been found in a ditch and brought to the orphanage, where I’d been named Tran Thi Ngoc Bich, “Precious Pearl” in English.
My father and his wife, my mother Lucy, were childless, and were planning on adopting. For some reason on that day, I got lucky. My dad decided to adopt me and bring me home with him. He named me Kimberly.
My earliest memories are of Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico, and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Then, in 1979, my father retired from the Air Force, and we settled in my mother’s home town of Solon Springs, Wisconsin.
By then, I was a naturalized citizen, an all-American small town girl who blended in with the other kids in my school. Church youth group, school activities, 4-H—that was me. I was one of the only Asians in the area, and I knew that marked me as different somehow.
But so did my fastidious personality. Even in kindergarten, I wanted things to be perfect. I wanted square corners on my bed. I wanted my clothes to be folded. As a teenager, I ironed my blue jeans.
And I was a serious student with college ambitions. My father thought the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs would be a good fit. And I did too.
That is, until I learned about the Naval Academy. A retired Admiral I’d met at a youth conference mailed me brochures and an academic catalog. The pictures were all in color.
Smiling students, sailboats cruising under radiant skies. And women! There were women in the photos. It looked like a place where I belonged.
So, this small-town girl a thousand miles from the ocean fell in love with the sea and became a Midshipman.
* * *
I joined the Navy and saw the world, first as a Surface Warfare Officer aboard ship, then in shore commands, then in various staff positions at the Pentagon. During my final years, I was fortunate to be chosen a White House Military Social Aide, where I participated in hundreds of White House events. I also worked for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen as the Deputy Director of the Office of Warrior and Family Support. For me, it was the fulfillment of the American Dream.
Mullen and Kim Mitchell. Photo courtesy of author.
Think about it. I was a 5’2” Vietnamese orphan, naturalized citizen, representing the United States in international discussions. In 2001, I participated in multilateral talks about short and intermediate range nuclear missile treaties. The Russians looked at me like, “Who are you?”
“I’m Lieutenant Mitchell,” I said. “I represent the Joint Staff.”
I had goals and worked hard toward them. I also had support for them, from the Navy and from my family. They made the Dream possible. My background didn’t matter.
But, of course, it mattered to me.
Like most adopted kids, I wondered about my origins. Who were my parents? Why had they abandoned me?
In 2011, I took a brief trip with friends to Vietnam, where I thought I might somehow connect to my past.
Without telling me, my friends contacted the Sacred Heart Orphanage, which was still operating, and arranged for a visit.
There, I met Sister Mary Tran, who had been at the orphanage back in 1972. They had all the old records and were able to find my name in the books: Tran Thi Ngoc Bich. I also had a number. I was Baby 899.
Running my finger on that name was like reaching back through the mist of time and touching something vital. Knowing your past is one thing. Feeling it is quite another.
A day or two later, we visited the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, which issued a press release about our discovery. A few news outlets picked up the story.
One of them was Nguoi Dep Magazine, a small Vietnamese-language monthly published in New Jersey. The little article they ran about me would change my life.
In October 2012, I received an email from a man living in Albuquerque. He claimed to be the person who brought me as a crying infant to the Sacred Heart Orphanage. He said he’d read the story in Nguoi Dep Magazine and recognized my unusual Vietnamese name, Precious Pearl.
I didn’t believe a word he said. I thought he was either delusional or a scam artist. It took many emails and phone calls to change my mind. On March 29, 2013—Vietnam Veterans Day — I met Bao Tran and learned his story . . . and some missing pieces of mine.
Bao told me I wasn’t abandoned. I was rescued. And Bao was just one of the rescuers.
It was May 1, 1972. The Easter Offensive was raging. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had crossed the DMZ with 300,000 soldiers and struck the South hard. Quang Tri City had just fallen, and there were enormous civilian casualties. The NVA then set its sights on Hue City to the south.
Bao was a 22-year-old South Vietnamese Marine, part of a demolition crew assigned to blow up the My Chanh Bridge along the main highway between Quang Tri and Hue to slow the NVA’s advance.
The last of Quang Tri’s refugees streamed across the bridge.
As Bao prepared the charges, he looked up and saw a final person staggering across. Bao ran out to bring him over before the bridge blew up.
“I can’t go on any longer,” the exhausted man said to Bao. Then, he gently handed over a conical hat.
“Please bring her to safety,” the man said. “She is desperately hungry.”
Bao peered into the hat and saw a baby curled at the bottom.
The man told Bao he’d found the baby on the roadside, clutching her dead mother, trying to nurse.
Bao took the hat and returned to his crew. He asked his commander what he should do with the baby.
“You take care of her,” the commander ordered.
Bao did just that. He carried me in the hat to Da Nang, over 80 miles. He walked much of the way. When I cried, he dipped his finger in his Thermos and gave me water.
Arriving at the Sacred Heart Orphanage, he handed me over to Sister Angela Nguyen.
“You must give her something of yourself,” Sister Angela said. “What would you like to name her?”
Bao gave me his surname, Tran, and then added “Ngoc Bich.” Precious Pearl.
* * *
Bao never forgot me and always considered himself, in some sense, as my surrogate father. He calls me con gái, daughter, and his own daughter Cindy calls me “Sis.” It’s very Vietnamese, who place the highest of value upon family. And families are broadly defined.
Bao has his own harrowing story of survival, of course. When Saigon fell in 1975, Bao was sent to a Communist “re-education camp,” where he was tortured and nearly starved. He was eventually released and came to the US in 1994 as part of a U.S. State Department effort to resettle former South Vietnamese soldiers.
Kim and Bao Tran with daughter Emily on VBC Happy Hour, June 2020.
I’m in awe of Bao, his compassion and his selflessness, which are beyond comprehension.
But I also think that Bao stands for so many others, veterans, who have given of themselves in extraordinary ways. I saw it in the Navy, which instills an ethic of service, a devotion to mission, and a commitment to something greater than yourself. Military service makes you strong, but if you learn the right lessons, you also grow in kindness.
Now that I’m out of the Navy, I’ve dedicated myself to serving veterans. And Vietnam veterans hold a special place in my heart. I owe everything to them. I’ve lived the American Dream because of the sacrifices they made in Vietnam. For that, they will always have my undying gratitude.