In the 1970s, when Bill Morse was a young reserve officer in the U.S. Army, he was a self-described Vietnam War objector.
He felt shaken by the atrocities of combat, he said, haunted by imagery of children having their limbs blown off by landmines.
Decades later, with those visions still in his mind, Morse embarked upon a journey that would result in his life’s calling. If you had asked Morse when he was a kid growing up in Palos Verdes Estates what he saw himself doing as an adult, it’s highly unlikely that he would have answered “working for a nonprofit that clears landmines in Cambodia.”
t’s also not likely that he would have envisioned himself as a primary focus of a documentary.
But that’s exactly how life has unfolded for Morse, who’s now 70 and the subject of a 90-minute film about how he and his wife Jill left behind a comfortable life in Southern California to take with the Cambodian Self Help Demining organization.
“Until They’re Gone,” recounts how Morse and his wife wound up selling their home and moving to Cambodia to join with a former child soldier for the Khmer Rouge named Aki Ra.
Morse was running a consulting firm when he heard about Ra’s mine-clearing efforts from a colleague who had just returned from Cambodia.
Morse trekked to Cambodia, saw Ra’s work up close and learned that he was paying most of his expenses out of his own pocket.
So Morse started raising funds to help Ra, who also operates a landmine museum that doubles as a home for a number of young landmine victims. Neither the de-minig center or landmine museum are affiliated with the Cambodian government.
After making multiple trips from the U.S. to Cambodia, Bill moved abroad in 2007 to help Ra’s company get a de-mining license. He thought it would take a couple of months, but it ultimately took two years.
During that time, Morse’s wife Jill made periodic trips to Cambodia and was equally impressed.
In 2009, she launched an ESL program at the landmine museum, currently home to 29 kids from remote areas with no family to support them, Morse said.
Morse was born in upstate New York and moved with his family to Palos Verdes Estates when in fifth grade. He attended numerous local schools, including Lunada Bay Elementary, K-12 school Malaga Cove, Dapplegray Elementary, Palos Verdes High School and Rolling Hills High.
“I suppose you could say I led sort of a sheltered life,” he said, “but I enjoyed growing up in PV very much.”
After high school, he attended a military college in Missouri for two years, then attended Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. In 1972, he became a reserve officer in the U.S. Army, where he voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War.
Decades later, he’s helping clean up part of the mess that countries around the world left in Cambodia as part of that conflict. Bill and his wife have lived full-time in Cambodia since 2014.
“Until They’re Gone,” filmed mostly in 2015, premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2017 and was screened at festivals in Long Beach, Texas and Cambodia. It became widely available to the public by landing on Amazon Prime in late June.
Its director, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Christopher Lockett said he wanted to make a more general documentary about landmine clearing in Cambodia before narrowing his focus to Bill and Jill Morse. “I needed an American entrance point to the story,” Lockett said.
“What we hope (the documentary) does is we hope it drives people to the (Landmine Relief Fund) website to donate,” Morse said. “And that’s my primary job. My job is to raise that money.”
It’s a job that he has no plans to give up. Nor does Jill plan to step away from teaching at the museum.
“There’s no end in mind,” she said. “I’m now in my 21st year of teaching and it is enjoyable. The kids are great and the need is there.”
Bill Morse said he knows that he’ll eventually have to reduce his workload from his current 60-hour work week, but says he’s still in it for the long haul.
“I’m here for the duration,” he said. “I’m here ‘till I drop.”