Bill Hall slowly shuffles into his office, where his oak desk sits in the corner with stacks of paper, a laptop, and a printer. His walls display 82 years of life with badges of honor, framed photographs of himself and colleagues in uniform, and a poster board with information about New Wine Men’s Retreat Center, a men’s recovery center for alcohol and substance abuse that he founded.
None of that—the papers, the framed photographs, the medals—matters though as Bill sits down at his desk and opens his large black leather Bible. This morning, like all other mornings, he opens to the book of Matthew, chapter 10 verse 37.
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
Then, he pulls out two pieces of paper from the back of his Bible. One displays the typed lines of the United States Pledge of Allegiance. The other, a poem that reads: On the American flag, This red stands for the blood of Christ. White stands for the cleanness of sin. Blue stands for the water of baptism, And the stars stand for the promise of Heaven. And each morning, those two pieces of paper remind Bill of the decision he made 20 years ago, when he decided to serve God. And the decision he continues to make to this day.
“Sometimes it’s hard to pledge allegiance,” Bill says. “I only pledge allegiance now to God. Don’t mean I don’t like our flag…I love it. It started way back, and it stood for a lot, and it still stands for a lot. I will say it, but I have to say, ‘God, You know my allegiance is still to You.’
have to say, ‘God, You know my allegiance is still to You.’ Because it says in the Bible: if you love your sons, your daughters, your wife, your mother, your father more than Me, then you’re not worthy of Me. So which way do you go? When do you have to make that turn? I made that turn and I really don’t care what they think about me—whether I do [pledge allegiance] or I don’t—because I just got to please my Father.”
Bill hoboed around while illegally jumping on a train from Oklahoma to California at the age of 13 to run away from home. He found jobs in various celery fields, where he took care of the farms' animals. From there, he hopped onto the next train to Oregon, then to Oklahoma, and eventually found himself in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1947. There, he enlisted in the army but got kicked out two months later when officials found out he was underage. They handed him some cash for a meal and a bus ticket to go back home. But since “home” didn’t exist, he simply took the cash and used it at the local bus station. Shortly after, he and two others he befriended along the way came across a Marine Corps recruiter.
“So we went in, and we took a test and passed it,” Bill explains. “And [the recruiter] says, ‘Take these home to your parents and sign them.’ We went back to the bus station because we didn’t have no home. And I signed theirs. They signed mine, so it wouldn’t look like the same people, or some stupid thing we would think of. And we took it back to them. We took our physicals and passed them and next thing we knew, we were on a train to Parris Island, South Carolina.”
Although Bill was born in 1932, he wrote “1929” for his date of birth, so that he would be of age for the Marine Corps.
For the next five years, Bill was stationed in Japan, Guam, China, and eventually in South Korea for the duration of the Korean War in 1950. In the dead of winter, 20-year-old Bill was a part of a United Nations force that included 15,000 U.S. Marines and U.S. Army units, who were deployed around the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea’s Hamgyong Mountains. They thought they were preparing for the Korean War’s final offensive, as the North Korean Army wobbled on the edge of defeat. But that battle never happened. Instead, unbeknownst to Bill and the other soldiers, an estimated 80,000 Communist Chinese soldiers surrounded them to intervene on behalf of their North Korean ally. With brutal conditions of temperatures minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and wind speeds over 60 miles per hour, the first bullet sliced through the air on November 17, 1950. And over the next 17 days, more than 3,000 U.S troops and 60,000 Chinese soldiers lost their lives from combat and the cold.
“It was about 40-something below zero, and it just…” Bill begins to say before emotions catch his throat. He pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe his eyes and nose. “Every Marine, Army, Airforce…everyone that was up there should have had the congressional medal of honor because everyone up there fighting deserved more than a medal. I don’t think there is a medal that could praise those men of all branches for that November and December up there.”
The U.S. troops successfully fought through the Chinese army and saved the lives of 98,000 civilian refugees. Bill made it through with nothing more than stitches to the mouth and permanent damage to his toes from the cold, but the haunting reality of that battle has stuck vividly to his memory almost 65 years later. For the next 23 years, Bill continued to serve in the Marines, as he traveled through Guantanamo Bay, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, and Okinawa. Finally, in 1973, after 26 years of service, Bill retired in El Toro, California (now Lake Forest).
At home, with five children and a wife, Bill resorted to heavy drinking. He never brought alcohol into his house, but it wasn’t uncommon for him to be out all night because he was drunk. In other words, even when he was home, Bill wasn’t really home.
“All I asked for was just some down time and peace,” Bill explains. “But there was never any peace…never any peace about all this time.”
For the majority of his adult life, Bill lived the life of a Marine. A soldier. A war veteran. A hero. But none of those identities saved him from a divorce and a broken family.
As Bill gives a tour of the retreat center, his 82-year-old frame simultaneously transforms into a young drill sergeant and a loving grandfather. Before entering the sleeping quarters, he yells, “Lady in the house! You better be cleaned up!” The young men, who stay there for as long as it takes to overcome their alcohol and drug addiction, greet him with respect. As Bill passes them to continue the tour, he pats one of the men on the shoulder. The young man smiles back at him.
Bill explains the structure of the retreat center. The men who stay at the retreat center have a Bible study at 6:30 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m. everyday. For meals, they are guaranteed beans and rice, but anything more is considered a blessing.
meals, they are guaranteed beans and rice, but anything more is considered a blessing. “Beans, rice, and Jesus Christ,” as Bill likes to say. If any of the men are up past the strict 10 p.m. “lights out” rule, there are penalties.
“If I catch you not [in bed], you get penalties for it,” Bill explains. “Could be anything. Could be digging me a hole. A famous hole is a two-by-two or a five-by-five.”
Why Bill started the retreat center can be traced back to 1995. By this time, he was married to his second and current wife, with two stepsons he immediately considered his own. One evening, one of his sons came home from work while Bill and his wife were eating dinner. “I’m going to hop in the shower,” he told them. After 15 minutes, however, Bill got nervous and asked his wife to check on their son. She knocked on the door. No answer. She knocked again. Still nothing. After she tried to open the door and couldn’t, she ran and got Bill. Bill tore the door off the bathroom to find his son lying on the floor with a needle in his arm. He died within 15 minutes.
The sudden death of his son turned Bill’s world upside down.
Two years prior, Bill’s wife had dragged him to New Wine Church in Fullerton, California. And through the tough love of two individuals—”Spin” and “Mondo Mondo”—Bill discovered Jesus Christ and fell in love. On one Wednesday night Bible study, Bill made a proclamation to everyone in the room. “This is my church. You are my pastor. And this is where I’m going to serve the Lord.” This moment of conviction hit him like a pile of bricks. At 65 years old, Bill finally understood who—not what—he had to pledge his allegiance to.
But when his son died, for two years all Bill could ask was: what the hell are you trying to do to me, Lord?
“That’s when I had a battle with the Lord,” Bill remembers. “[I said to God], ‘You’ll tell me all these wonderful things, and then you take my son’...At that time, me and God had a serious argument because I blamed God for that, not realizing He wakes me up [everyday].”
Despite the anger and hurt, Bill kept studying the Bible. And as he learned more about the loving character of God, he began to understand that God wasn’t the one to blame. In fact, when Bill suffered the pain of losing his son, God understood, too, for He had lost His own Son. And if Bill could seek God for comfort rather than blame Him, his brokenness could be replaced with a deep peace. When Bill realized this, he knew what he needed to do. He needed to open a recovery center for men just like his deceased son.
“My wife and I said, ‘We don’t want another mother and father to go through the same thing we went through,’” Bill says.
To the right of the building that houses the men at New Wine Men’s Retreat Center sits a humble white building. Inside, angled rows of about 100 chairs lead up to a small pulpit. Behind the pulpit, an American flag, a wooden cross, and a Christian flag stand next to each other.
“You’ll see there,” Bill points to the flag, “the Christian flag is raised higher than the American flag. That’s because of what I said earlier: we pledge allegiance to the Lord first.”
At 82 years old, Bill is the first to admit that he will always be a Marine. After all, his service in the Marine Corps extends from the end of World War II, through the Korean War, through Vietnam, and through the Cold War. He survived the Chosin Reservoir battle that mirrors the most epic of Hollywood war films.
survived the Chosin Reservoir battle that mirrors the most epic of Hollywood war films. And yet, he is the first to admit that the most exciting time of his life is now: as a pastor who helps free men from the shackles of addiction.
“I’ve been blessed more than any man you’d ever know or see,” Bill says. “And I don’t want to brag or boast about it because that’s God’s business and not mine.”
Every Sunday morning, families gather in the small church to hear Pastor Bill speak. On any given day of the week, a member of the church or a family member of an ex-addict stops by his house to say “hello” or to show off the newest member of their family. Bill even carries photos of children and young adults who are a part of his church, sharing stories of them as if they are his own grandchildren.
Bill couldn’t have known that when he gave his life to God at the age of 65, God still had an entirely new life planned for him. How could Bill know that a 10-acre piece of land in the sparse desert of Lucerne Valley, California that he found in the local Penny Saver for $125,000 would be his future ministry for men to seek freedom from addiction and pursue God?
“So I picked up the Penny Saver and reading the Penny Saver, there popped up this place,” Bill says. “I came up here and looked at it. Looked at others, and we decided on this one. I asked [the agent] how much it went for, and it was $125 [thousand] for this place. I said, ‘Would they take $85 [thousand]?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know.’ But [the owners] had moved back to Carlsbad, New Mexico. She said, ‘I’ll submit it to them, and I’ll need $1000 in good faith.’ I said, ‘I don’t have $1000.’ But I wrote her a check and said, ‘Give me a 90-day escrow.’ I can scrape up something in 90 days.”
How could Bill know that, despite being completely broke, God would open the door for him to buy 10 acres of land?
open the door for him to buy 10 acres of land?
“At that time, the Marine Corps sent a letter saying we would have to report to Medicare,” Bill remembers. “So I went down to Social Security. I told the lady that was interviewing me, ‘I need some Medicare, but I don’t need Social Security,’ Bill continues. “She said, ‘You can’t have one without the other.’ I said, ‘I get a retirement. I don’t need Social Security.’ About 15 minutes pass by. She was getting tired of me, and me of her too. She said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll backdate your Social Security.’ I said, ‘All I want is Medicare.’ She backdated it, and six weeks later, I got a check for $10,000.”
How could Bill know that he would not only run a rehabilitation center but also pastor an entire community?
“There’s no pastor who could run this place here because he wouldn’t want to do what I do,” Bill says. “I had a call the other night from a lady up the hill over there. She said, ‘Pastor, I got a snake on my door. You got a gun?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Will you come up here and kill him?’ So I got one of the guys and put him in the truck with me. And I took my gun and went over there. And I killed the snake and threw it away and prayed [for her].”
Bill couldn’t have known that any of this still lay before him. At 65 years old, he couldn’t have known that the most exciting time of his life had yet to come. But when he made the commitment to serve the Lord, he knew all he needed was faith and the Lord would provide the rest.
“My life is probably no different than anybody else’s,” Bill says. “And to serve not knowing what’s in your life—I didn’t know what was in my life for that 30 years—all I knew was I was going here and going there, and I was doing this and I was doing that. I learned war. I was taught war all my life. Now, I’m in a different battle with these men out here and running a church every Sunday.
every Sunday. We will always be in a different war. If you want to serve God, there’s always going to be someone against you. You just suck it up and go along. Just let God know what you need.”
As Bill finishes up the tour of the retreat center, he ends with a photo of him and his wife. In the picture, he is in uniform, lovingly gazing into his wife’s eyes. As he explains when this photo was taken, he moves his Purple Heart, a highly-respected medal honored to U.S. armed forces wounded or killed in war, slightly to the side to give a better view of the picture.
A hero then and a hero now. And yet, every morning, before he begins his day, he pulls those two pieces of paper out of his Bible and makes a decision to pledge allegiance to his God first.
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