Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer 
and the President's Malaria Initiative

An inspiring example of a man governed by conscience and whose exceptional career reflects a life of passion and devotion to public health who has transformed his professional expertise as a US Navy Rear Admiral into a sacred mission.



When President George W. Bush appointed Admiral Ziemer to coordinate the President’s Malaria Initiative in 2006, he chose a distinguished naval career officer, a humanitarian who had led disaster response and healthcare relief in over 30 countries, and an individual of extraordinary integrity. This Initiative was founded at a time when the U.S. government’s anti-malaria efforts were in a shambles — backing outdated drugs and a budget that went to consultants designing ad campaigns telling Africans to buy mosquito nets — which most could not afford.

Admiral Ziemer came to this assignment with a special understanding and background. From infancy through high school, he lived in Ban Me Thuot, in the central highlands of French Indochina, in what is now Vietnam. His parents were Presbyterian missionaries, who imbued him with their values of faith, selflessness, and altruism. As a young child, Admiral Ziemer witnessed the plight of those ostracized by illness when he watched how his father built a compound for people with leprosy, and then cared for them. 

When it was time to address a continent afflicted by malaria, he recalled his own childhood sleeping under mosquito nets and surviving a bout of malaria. During the past nine years, under Admiral Ziemer’s dedicated leadership, the President’s Malaria Initiative has achieved remarkable success in combating this stubborn worldwide scourge. With little fanfare, never seeking publicity or acclaim, Admiral Ziemer is recognized by his fellow malaria fighters as one of the most quietly effective leaders in public health worldwide.

Many countries now use the protocols he adopted after he demanded proof that they worked: free distribution of insecticide-treated nets, indoor pesticide spraying, routine doses of malaria medicine for pregnant women, rapid blood tests for diagnosis, and a new fast-acting drug with one of the several longer-lasting drugs for treatment. 

Admiral Ziemer, as he travels from Africa to Asia, meeting with government health ministers, national laboratories, village chiefs, local malaria educators, rural doctors and pharmacists, and local residents, brings hope, as well as tangible relief, in his sacred mission of saving lives.

Rear Admiral R. Timothy Ziemer's acceptance speech
for the 2015 Roger E. Joseph Prize

I am humbled and grateful to accept the Roger E. Joseph Prize and to participate in the Ordination ceremonies of the New York School of the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion. It is a great personal honor to receive this recognition, which reflects a remarkable history of significant public service and selflessness. I promise to do everything I can to honor the legacy of Roger E. Joseph and past recipients and continue in the tradition upon which the award was founded with respect and dignity. 

To the Graduating Class of 2015: it is a personal pleasure to share in the sense of excitement and accomplishment evident this morning as you conclude seminary studies and become rabbis and cantors at such a beautiful and historic temple, Temple Emanu-El.

As I reviewed the distinguished list of honorees of the Roger E. Joseph prize, I was sobered and inspired by the past recipients. In reflecting on Victor Kugler’s moral strength, compassion, and selflessness in shielding Anne Frank and others from the Nazis, I recalled the inspiring words of Ms. Corrie Ten Boom, whose family participated in the Dutch resistance. The Booms provided refuge and assistance to Jewish families and other refugees, sheltering them in their home. The Nazis raided their house and incarcerated them at Ravensbrück. Corrie was the only person in her family to survive the Holocaust. She was an inspiring example of faith, endurance, and forgiveness, and her words continue to resonate. She often said, “There is no pit so deep, that He is not deeper still,” and, “Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.”

She, like Victor Kugler, Rosa Parks, Daniel Pearl, Rabbi Levi Lauer, and all past Roger E. Joseph Prize honorees who have campaigned against prejudice and discrimination of any kind, promoted peace and reconciliation, fought to end hunger, trafficking, and genocide, and encouraged the world to remember the Holocaust, instilled in others and themselves values of human rights and social responsibility.

I, and the other members of my team [at the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI)], have a strong sense of social responsibility, and strive to make the world a healthier place, a place free from malaria. To that end, I want to express my deep thanks and appreciation for the gift of $10,000 which I will use to purchase more than 3,000 bed nets which will protect approximately 6,000 children under five years of age.

This is a different audience than I normally address — so this morning I’m going to set aside Washington DC policy issues and share some more personal thoughts. I hope that’s okay.

Growing up, I was taught that the Lord didn’t create anything without a purpose. Well, mosquitoes come pretty close. The female anopheles mosquito is the most dangerous animal in the world. She’s a flying syringe that carries the parasite that causes malaria from one person to another.

Malaria has plagued mankind for millennia. In the 5th century B.C., Herodotus described using fishing nets at night to protect against biting gnats. And the disease was so prevalent in Elizabethan England that Shakespeare features malaria in nine of his plays. In World War Two, malaria caused five times as many casualties as did enemy action in the South Pacific. I am sure veterans of Bataan, Papua New Guinea, Guadalcanal and other Pacific theaters, and southern Europe recall the peril of malaria. At least eight U.S. Presidents are believed to have contracted malaria during their lifetime, including Washington and Lincoln. Malaria was so prevalent in Washington DC in the late 1800s there was even a short-lived movement to erect a giant screen around the city – a sort of city-wide bed net. Malaria was eliminated from the United States in the early 1950s thanks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Malaria is a disease of contradiction because we know what causes it; how to prevent and treat it and yet the sad, sad fact is that each year over 400 million people suffer from it and it will kill over 600,000 people this year. Today it is estimated 1,500 children under the age of five in Africa will needlessly die. We could turn our backs on this tragedy, but it’s not going to go away!

I’m pleased to say that the United States government has not turned its back on the suffering caused by malaria and has made a historic commitment — through the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative — to provide funding and technical assistance to save lives. The President’s Malaria Initiative is considered one of the most successful U.S. Government public health and foreign assistance programs. Ten years ago, President Bush announced the creation of the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative to combat malaria with a focus on the most vulnerable, young children and pregnant women. I’m grateful that the President’s Malaria Initiative was continued and expanded by President Obama, and receives strong bi-partisan and bi-cameral support from Congress.

Together with partner countries, we are bringing effective tools for the prevention and control of malaria, including use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor residual spraying, accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment, and intermittent preventive treatment of pregnant women, to the people who need them most—women and children. The President’s Malaria Initiative is currently working in 19 countries in Africa and two countries and regionally in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, working with over 200 partners (of which 30 per cent are faith based). We are seeing excellent progress! 

Released in December 2014, the World Health Organization’s malaria report reported reductions in malaria cases of over 54 per cent and that an estimated four million malaria-related deaths have been averted worldwide in the last decade — most of those since 2007 when the President’s Malaria Initiative was introduced. Of the lives saved, 95 per cent are estimated to be children under five in Africa. Less malaria means fewer newborn, infant, and maternal deaths, fewer days missed at school and work, more productive communities, and stronger economies. There is growing optimism that malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa can be controlled.

I am grateful to be leading the President’s Malaria Initiative, and I can say without reservation that this work has provided me with challenges and rewards as great as those I experienced while on active duty with the U.S. Navy — except, perhaps, the thrill and excitement of landing and taking airplanes off from ships at sea!

I am the son of missionaries. I was privileged to grow up in Ban Me Thuot, in the central highlands of French Indochina, in what is now Vietnam. I had malaria as a child, but I was fortunate to sleep under a net and had medicine to cure me. My parents ran a school, clinic, and leprosarium.

I witnessed passion and sacrifice driven by one’s faith and a commitment to provide physical and spiritual reconciliation. I don’t have to remind this crowd that there is more to life than meets the eye. Scripture tells us that God is at work through us as individuals to restore and bring reconciliation to individuals and communities. Everyone here this morning wants their lives to count – to make a difference—to matter.

When I returned to the U.S. for college my father saw me off at the airport and he handed me a letter stuffed with $89. His letter affirmed his love for me and encouraged me to read and embrace Proverbs 3:5–6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” That was the last time I saw my father alive. The experiences of the next several years impacted and helped shape my life of public service. 

One of my darkest days came as I was finishing up my senior year at Wheaton College. I received word that my father and five other missionaries had been killed in cold blood during a major battle in Vietnam. The mission hospital, bible school, and facilities were destroyed. My mother was the only missionary to survive. She was seriously injured receiving 18 grenade shrapnel wounds. She was taken prisoner but later abandoned to fend for herself when the enemy soldiers retreated from the town. 

As you might imagine, it was an emotional time for me. I struggled to make sense of what had happened. I had been taught that God was sovereign and that He cared and had a plan for me. None of that seemed to come together at that moment. Up until then, life had been pretty good — I was my own moral authority — suddenly the inadequacy of that became painfully obvious. 

My mother’s response to that tragedy helped me see things differently. She was taken to a small provincial hospital and a Vietnamese nurse came by to check on her. When she was told about the massacre at the mission station, she said, “You must hate my country and our people.” My mom responded, “No, I don’t hate your country or your people. I love your country and your people. We came to help your people and share with you a God who gives me this love.”

Several days later my mother was evacuated back to the U.S. I’ll never forget walking on the plane to receive my mom at the airport. Every stretcher was full of sailors, marines, and soldiers. My mom was the only civilian and had lost everything except her wedding ring. She knew I was going to be a basket case so she passed me a note that she had written on the trans-Pacific flight. It was the first stanza of the gospel hymn, ’Count Your Blessings’: “When upon life’s billows you are tempests 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.” The prophet Habakkuk admonishes us that regardless of the circumstances and evil around us, to rejoice in the Lord. My mother showed me how to do that! She lived out the quote by Oswald Chambers, “Crisis doesn’t build anything into your life when it’s happening at the moment; rather, it tests what you already have there!” 

As you complete your formal training today, you have many options and choices. I left college 46 years ago this week and I had a plan — grad school. That didn’t work out. I was drafted for military duty and ended up returning to Vietnam as a Navy pilot. It wasn’t what I had planned nor expected. 

My first duty assignment was to return to Vietnam to fly helicopter gunships in support of the Navy Seals. It was another challenging and emotional year. As a 24-year-old navy Lieutenant (junior grade), I flew 550 combat missions, from a remote, loosely guarded, dusty artillery base along the Mekong River. Twelve pilots and air crewmen from our squadron were killed in action . 

We live in a world of two extremes. On one hand, there is the wonder and mystery of technology and science — cutting edge space exploration, breathtaking medical advances, and awe-inspiring computer technology. Technology and science are accelerating so fast it’s almost like a Chihuahua high on espresso; we can’t keep up with it. There is the contradiction of the world we must navigate, one with a combustible mix of abject poverty, economic stress, and irrational and unexplained hatred. A dangerous world where the foundations seem to be shifting beneath our feet and groaning that this is not the way it’s supposed to be.

God is calling us from different times of our lives, from different cultures and skills to communicate that in the midst of suffering and oppression there is hope. Who gets to communicate that to the world and humanity? Us! 

My challenge for you this morning is nothing new or radical. I’ve learned over and over that it wasn’t my rank or position that was important, that I couldn’t enshrine my experiences or heritage. And, it wasn’t my father’s commitment or mother’s faith and courage, but my own posture before God that’s important. We tend to worry about our circumstances and successes, but the Lord is interested in our consecration. He uses circumstances to draw us to Him — not to push us away.

I can assure you that with life’s successes and pleasures there will be days of challenge. You’ll relearn over and over that you can’t change the past, although you’ll try. You can’t predict the future, you’ll get it wrong. Live in the present and make the most of each day. 

It is my hope that by sharing a few highlights of my story and life experiences, that I have illustrated and affirmed the wonderful truth of those words from Proverbs I quoted earlier: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” And as we walk along that path, the prophet Micah exhorted us, “…to embrace justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” Pray that the Lord do something in your life so that you will be empowered to do something in the lives of others. Mother Teresa was asked at the end of her life by what success she wanted to be remembered. Her response was, “I’m not called to be successful…I’m called to be faithful.” 

Thank you, again, for asking me to share this special day with you and for honoring me with the Roger E. Joseph Prize. For all the graduates gathered here today, please accept my warmest and sincere congratulations!

Thank you! And, God bless you all.