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Nurse practitioner helps WWII vet tell his story

Mark Parker

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Retired Marine Master Sgt. Joe Pippen (left) looks over a display featuring his war memorabilia at Veterans Funeral Care in Clearwater. Photo courtesy of Empath Health.

Retired Marine Master Sgt. Joe Pippen is in relatively good health for 97 years old, but requires hospice care as he completes his momentous journey through life.

Pippen – who lives alone in his Clearwater home – is part of the country’s rapidly dwindling population of World War II veterans. Like many from the era, he also served in Korea. Over 16 million American citizens served in the Second World War, of which 174,387 are still alive, according to Department of Veterans Affairs estimates.

While that number may seem high, it represents just over 1% of what is known as the nation’s “Greatest Generation,” and those who remain are all approaching their centennial birthdays. While Pippen is prone to forgetting recent events and people and has some difficulty keeping his train of thought, he still speaks with the zeal of a former Marine and realizes he is now on borrowed time.

“I have no family, so when I leave the world,” began Pippen before finishing his next thought with a sense of incredulity. “I’ve been a hospice patient for 16 months.”

The WWII vet, who served extensively in the Pacific theater, concluded the sentiment by stating that it was time “to get rid of some things.”

Laura Bradshaw is an advanced practice registered nurse with Pinellas-based Suncoast Hospice, a member of the nonprofit network Empath Health. Pippen has a weekly nurse to monitor him, who provides updates to Bradshaw and her organization.

In addition, hospice guidelines mandate a prognosis of six months or less to live. Once a patient reaches that mark, their health insurance requires a nurse practitioner or physician to reevaluate them to ensure they still meet that prognosis.

“To see if we’re doing everything we can do to make them feel their best,” said Bradshaw. “Then it helps for the recertification leads, so they can keep going.”

Laura Bradshaw, APRN with Suncoast Hospice, was instrumental in preserving Pippen’s story.

While Pippen has exceeded both Bradshaw’s and his own expectations, they recognized the importance of preserving his story and the memorabilia he has held onto from his days as a Marine.

Bradshaw relayed that Pippen had two sons. One was born with a disability, and the other passed away unexpectedly while walking along the beach. His wife later followed.

Pippen, who became a successful businessman and led an insurance company after his military service, retired to the area about 40 years ago. Bradshaw said his family has a history of heart disease, so he thought it was a good idea to retire early – at 57.

“He thought that ‘I better enjoy myself before I die,’” said Bradshaw. “And then he says, ‘here I am, 40 years later.’”

Bradshaw stressed that Pippen is a gentleman and kind-hearted, always eager to show off pictures of his wife, kids and dog. When she came to visit him in May, on Memorial Day, Pippen thought it was an opportune time to share his war memorabilia.

In a back office, Bradshaw saw numerous plaques, awards, medals and worn Marine utility covers. Pippen asked if she wanted some of the items as a gift.

Bradshaw adamantly declined the generous offer and said she would find a home for his historic keepsakes.

“So you know that they’re going to be treasure,” she told him. “I said, ‘other people would enjoy seeing this and hearing your story.’”

The nurse practitioner’s presumption was correct, and she would soon live up to her word.

Bradshaw, who is resolute in her belief that Pippen’s generation is indeed the greatest, immediately reached out to Empath Health’s Veteran Services department. They contacted Veterans Funeral Care (VFC), a funeral home and cemetery in Clearwater.

According to its website, VFC is the nation’s first funeral home for veterans and their families. It also provides a “unique patriotic final tribute setting,” complete with a military museum and reception area.

VFC officials, said Bradshaw, were thrilled to display Pippen’s memorabilia. They also hosted a special luncheon in the Master Sergeant’s honor, inviting fellow Marine veterans who presented him with a 48-star flag – the flag Pippen and his colleagues served under in the 1940s.

“I really thank the hospice for making it possible … and it was good to be around them,” said Pippen. “I enjoyed talking to the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps too – I had never met any of those guys.”

Pippin was stationed in Okinawa when Japan surrendered in 1945.

Pippen appreciated the camaraderie provided by the luncheon and ceremony – “that was a delight for me,” he said – noting he has outlived most of the people he served with, and his friends and family.

It was also a delight for Bradshaw, who stressed her fondness for the character of older patients like Pippen – especially the veterans.

Pippen volunteering for Korea despite a burgeoning career, and after surviving WWII,  left an indelible mark on Bradshaw. She found it imperative to honor his sacrifices by finding people and a place to ensure his story lives on for future generations.

“So he has peace knowing that his possessions and honors that he received have a home,” said Bradshaw. “That people are going to learn from and appreciate after he’s gone.”

His service

Pippen, originally from Virginia, said he “did nothing really outstanding personally” during the war. He then listed a series of exceptional endeavors he participated in throughout the Pacific.

Pippen was burned in an accident and said he did not expect to ship overseas in 1944. Four weeks later, he received orders to head to San Diego.

Soon after arriving in San Diego, Pippen found himself on a ship headed to the South Pacific. His first stop was formerly Japanese-occupied New Caledonia, then the infamous Guadalcanal. From there, he traveled by ship to other locations recognizable by any military history buff – the Solomon Islands, the Philippines and Okinawa, the site of the largest amphibious invasion in the Pacific Theater.

“I got the grand tour,” said Pippen with a laugh.

Pippen recalled his unit was packing to leave Okinawa to fight in mainland Japan when a storm caused many of the larger ships to crash against the rocks surrounding the island.

He was in Okinawa when Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945.

Following WWII, Pippen began a successful career. After starting as an “office boy,” he eventually became the CEO of the Southwest General Life Insurance company.

In the meantime, however, he remained in the Marine Reserves.

A few years later, war would break out on the Korean Peninsula, and Pippen was again on active duty. He was charged with training and dispersing three batteries of soldiers, and he said many possessed no active-duty experience.

After the Korean War, Pippen would retire from the Marine Corps as a master sergeant.

“And we did landings at nighttime, and that type of thing to try and train men what to do and how to do it – that was a real experience,” he said.

Pippen noted his enlistment had ended, and he was under no obligation to ship to Korea.

“I felt like it was necessary for me as a Marine to go back on active duty with a man that I had served with for three years,” he added. “So, that’s a nutshell of it.

“I’m an old Marine – you can bet your boots on that.”

 

 

 

 

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