The immigrant experience is an essential element in the ongoing story of the United States. In his latest portrait collection, former President George W. Bush tries to capture the images and stories of some of those who came to America and found a new way of life.
One of the subjects of his new collection is Kim Mitchell, a U.S. Navy veteran who was born in South Vietnam and orphaned as a baby. Her extraordinary story is one of hard work and dedication that would lead to a lifetime of service, first to her country and later to her fellow veterans.
When Mitchell first came to the United States, she was just 10 months old. Her adoptive father was Air Force Tech. Sgt. James Mitchell, an airman deployed to Vietnam in 1972. He brought Kim home from an orphanage in Da Nang in what was then South Vietnam.
“My mother and father didn’t have any children prior to my dad being deployed to Vietnam,” Kim Mitchell tells Military.com “I think they just mentioned that if the opportunity came up to adopt a child, they would, and it didn’t care if it was a boy or girl.”
Tech. Sgt. Mitchell would regularly drop off clothes and supplies to the local orphanage. Many service members did, Mitchell recalls. But one day, the nuns in the orphanage put little Kim in his arms.
“I was fortunate enough for him to say that day, I’m gonna adopt this one. I’ll take this one,” she says.
From the start, her American experience was an exceptional one. Some of her earliest memories came in New Mexico while her father was stationed at Cannon Air Force Base. At just four years old, she was flying in an airplane belonging to a friend of her fathers, a fellow airman. Another early memory has her in a photo with then-Governor of New Mexico, Jerry Apodaca.
Mitchell spent much of her younger years on the family farm in Solon Springs, Wisconsin. Where many immigrants live with a family who are also immigrants, young Kim was one of two people of Asian descent in her family. One of her cousins was also adopted from Vietnam — but none of that really mattered in her community.
“We were clearly not born down the road, like everybody else was in Northern Wisconsin,” she says. “It wasn’t until my Naval Academy days that I even met other Asians. Though I did have a cousin, we were the two Asians in the family and we both considered ourselves Americans just like everybody else. We didn’t think anything about it.”
Young Kim’s father pushed her to consider the Air Force Academy after high school, but a chance encounter with a Navy Admiral took her career in a different direction. She was selected to represent her school at a Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership conference and was asked to introduce him as a speaker. He convinced her to also look at the Naval Academy. When she got the brochure, she said, the decision came quickly.
“I started getting pamphlets about the Naval Academy and the programs that they had. Everything was in color and everyone was smiling,” Mitchell says with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘this looks like a lot of fun. I think I’m going to shift my focus to the Naval Academy.’ In the pictures of the Air Force Academy, there wasn’t a whole lot of smiling.”