Few Americans know malaria better than retired Rear Admiral R. Timothy Ziemer ’68. He contracted the disease as a child in Southeast Asia, as did his missionary parents and two of his siblings. For the past seven years, he’s spent nearly $4.5 billion coordinating the United States’ effort to control and eliminate it worldwide.
Tim feels “blessed” to be leading the government program that enjoys “strong bipartisan Congressional support.” Launched by President George W. Bush in 2005 and expanded under President Barack Obama, the President’s Malaria Initiative “represents all that is good about American foreign assistance,” says Tim. “It’s a wonderful reflection of the U.S. government’s commitment to global health and the poor.”
Malaria may be often overshadowed by more trendy or pressing global health issues, but it remains a “major disease burden” on nearly 200 million people and a “huge economic problem contributing to global poverty,” Tim says. “[Yet] we know what causes it, we know how to prevent it, and we know how to treat it.”
To date, the initiative, which focuses on 19 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and one region in Southeast Asia, has distributed more than 155 million insecticide- treated nets, 174 million rapid diagnostic tests, and 318 million antimalarial treatments. The goal was to reduce deaths by 50 percent among pregnant women and children under age five. Though malaria will still kill an estimated 600,000 people this year, today most of the initial countries have succeeded.
For Tim’s role in the success, he is the 63rd recipient—and first military recipient—of the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service to Society award. Tim was raised in the central highlands of what is now Vietnam by missionary parents serving with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and was inspired to attend Wheaton College by events in Ecuador. He remembers being awakened by his father in 1956 as soon as news of the deaths of Jim Elliot ’49, Nate Saint ’50, and Ed McCully ’49 hit the short-wave radio (Tim’s father was an associate of the three martyred missionaries). Tim was struck by his father’s sadness, as well as his description of Wheaton College as a Christian school.
“As I processed it as a kid, it became my personal target and goal to go to Wheaton,” he says.
Wheaton College Alumni Association
It helped that his father was also a personal friend of Wheaton’s fourth president, Dr. V. Raymond Edman HON. So Tim applied. But he wasn’t accepted.
“It was one of the first rejections I experienced,” he says. Yet President Edman encouraged him to reapply, so he did, and transferred in as a sophomore.
Tim found his friend circle among Wheaton’s varsity track team: his 440-yard relay team still holds the college record. In the same class as pastor and author Dr. John Piper ’68, historian Dr. Mark Noll ’68, and Evangelical Free Church of America president Rev. Bill Hamel ’68, Tim credits Wheaton with reinforcing his desire for “a life of service and sacrifice.”
He was impressed with how President Edman had grown up as a “missionary kid” and become a college president, and with how Dr. Hudson Taylor Armerding ’41 was a captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve while serving as Wheaton’s fifth president.
Tim majored in history and was accepted to three graduate schools, but was drafted before he could enroll in further study. Tim served in the U.S. Navy for 30 years, flying 550 combat missions in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. He rose through the ranks, becoming Rear Admiral. His last assignment was Commander of the Mid-Atlantic Region in 2000.
Tim retired from the military in 2001, but the opportunities for service continued. He was asked by World Relief to lead its programs and served as executive director. Then, in 2006, Tim was asked to serve his country by becoming coordinator of the President’s Malaria Initiative.
Wheaton also prepared Tim to respond to the challenges of life with faith. College life was good for Tim, until one day in January 1968 when Chaplain Evan Welsh ’27 came and told him that, amid the height of the Vietnam War, his father had been killed and his mother injured by North Vietnamese soldiers. He walked the college streets “perplexed and anguished, asking why the Lord would allow this to happen,” he says. Then he walked past Blanchard Hall and saw the sign: “For Christ and his Kingdom.”
“I’ll never forget that moment,” he says. “It was a clear message for me that I needed to accept what I had been taught in Scripture that it’s about Christ and not about us. I know that sounds a bit phony and rehearsed, but it was true.”
Time has deepened his understanding. Shortly before the attack, Tim’s father had completed his translation of the New Testament into the Rade language and sent it to London. There it was preserved, printed, and sent back to Vietnam, where national leaders used it to translate the entire Bible. Today, the number of people who have come to Christ in his parents’ province is up nearly 500 percent, he says, from approximately 70,000 in 1968 to 400,000 today. Tim sees this as an example of how God has used the work of missionaries like his father to grow the church.
“Looking back now, I can see the answer to the question, ‘Why?’ It is now a bit easier to embrace and celebrate.” Tim describes himself as a “normal guy who benefited from the Wheaton environment that reaffirmed and prepared me for different kinds of service.”
“Wheaton reinforced the idea that we are here to learn but also to serve, not to pursue some lofty position,” he says. “We as believers have an opportunity to roll up our sleeves and work in the trenches.”
Watch an exclusive video honoring retired Rear Admiral Tim Ziemer '68's contributions to church and society: