SUPERIOR, Wis. -- Kim Mitchell was discovered on the side of the road in Vietnam, clutching her dead mother, in 1972. A South Vietnamese soldier carried her 37 miles to an orphanage.
When the nuns who ran the orphanage put her into the arms of American Air Force Sgt. James Mitchell, he fell in love and adopted her. Decades later, when she met the soldier who carried her to the orphanage, it attracted national attention.
Former President George W. Bush called it “a beautiful story of a life saved, a life lived” during a radio interview about his new book, “Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants.”
Bush turned his attention, and his paintbrush, to capturing 43 stories and portraits of immigrants — including Mitchell, of Solon Springs, Wis. — for the book, released this month. The paintings and stories are on display at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Texas.
Adopted out of Vietnam as a child, Kim Mitchell attended the Naval Academy in Maryland after high school and became an officer. Driven to serve, Mitchell took the SAT test eight times to get the score needed to attend the academy.
“She was always a straight shooter,” Chuck Walt, of Solon Springs, said. “A very sweet person, but very no-nonsense. She’s very task-oriented and knows how to get things done and she’s very passionate about veterans issues, particularly Vietnam vets, and you can tell that’s part of her fabric.”
Mitchell moved up the ranks to lieutenant commander and traveled the globe. She worked directly with Admiral Michael Mullen, the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as a military social aide at the White House for five years.
“I call it the ultimate fly-on-the-wall experience, because you get to see people and you get to meet people that you wouldn’t normally meet,” Mitchell said. “I mean, these are people that change the world and have significant impacts on life and on culture and communities and countries.”
She left the military in 2012 to start a nonprofit that serves veterans in Washington, D.C., then became president and CEO of Veterans Village of San Diego in 2018. The highlight of her military career was leading sailors and helping them reach their potential, and she’s been led to continue supporting veterans through the nonprofit sector.
“I find meaning in really connecting with people that truly need assistance in finding resources,” Mitchell said. “If it’s what I can do until my dying breath, that’s what I’m going to do.”
She's driven by those who have served, particularly the Vietnam veterans who came back 50 years ago and didn't have resources, who didn't have a country that appreciated their service. The Solon Springs woman is part of their legacy.
“I’m here because of them,” Mitchell said, and it’s her goal to ensure that the generation currently serving in the military never come back to a country that doesn’t appreciate their service.
Mitchell was tapped to speak at the Solon Springs Educational Foundation's inaugural fish fry fundraiser in 2018. It was a chance for community members to reconnect with Mitchell and her story.
“Isn’t it amazing? I’m so incredibly proud of her,” Solon Springs High School teacher Joanne Zosel said. “The Kim today is the Kim that you could see started to flourish in her high school days. Just the drive, the caring, wanting to reach out to people. That is the same Kim that I know right now."
Jan Lietha, who taught Mitchell social studies, said her story shows that even if you come from a tiny community in northern Wisconsin, anybody who’s dedicated and who has a dream can do great things.
“She’s really a champion for the veterans," Lietha said.
Mitchell’s connection to Bush and the new book has elevated her story another step.
“It just kind of puts Solon Springs on the map when your own kids and alumni from the school go on to do big things,” Walt said.
The back story
Mitchell first met Bush while serving at the White House. Then in 2019, she attended the Bush Institute’s Veteran Leadership Program. That was where she was approached about being in the book.
“I was adopted when I was 10 months old. I grew up in northern Wisconsin and Solon Springs. So, you know, even though I’m a naturalized citizen and I have a newspaper clipping from when I was naturalized, sometimes I don’t think of myself as an immigrant,” Mitchell said.
She said the stories of courage and resiliency in the book are inspiring, and very timely.
“I absolutely think that immigration is a hot topic right now. I think it’s something that we need to come together on as a nation, and I’m glad that President Bush is really kind of changing the narrative that the immigrants have contributed a lot to this country. We are a nation of immigrants."
The message she'd like people to take from her story is one of acceptance.
"There are always going to be people that maybe look differently or act differently or behave differently. That doesn't mean that they're bad people," she said. "Acceptance is a big thing. And I think if we go into any conversation and travel anywhere, think in that open mind that 'These are people just like me.'"
Mitchell’s starting a new chapter soon. She’s been packing up this week as she prepares to travel from San Diego to Maryland, where she will continue her work with National University. She’ll be bringing two dogs and a very large portrait, a copy of the one Bush painted.
"It's pretty big," Mitchell said with a laugh. "It will be interesting. It will take a lot of space on my wall in my new home and people are gonna be like, 'Why is there a big picture of your head on your wall?' I'll be like, 'I'm glad you asked.'"
Visit the George W. Bush Presidential Center website, bushcenter.org, for more information about the book and exhibit.