The Lost Son 

Iraq War vet Noah Pippin went into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Did he ever come out?

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Pippin apparently continued his trek in the direction Lang and his party had gone, passing over the Continental Divide. He must have followed the trail as it veered south along the Chinese Wall, a line of cliffs towering above the wilderness. He was already dozens of miles deeper into the Bob Marshall than his original route implied, and he wasn't done hiking.

A chance to serve

A World War II uniform hangs in a glass case on a wall of the living room of the Pippins' Lake Ann, Mich. home. It belonged to Mike Pippin's father, who fought in the European Theater. War memorabilia surrounds the case, making it a shrine to the Pippin family's service record. Mike's great-grandfather fought for the South in the Civil War. His wife Rosalie's great-grandfather fought for the North. Mike served in the Navy in the Vietnam era.

"Noah was around his grandfather and around all these stories," says Rosalie. "Noah's grown up in a family that understands the necessity of war at times, and can appreciate that he's part of a family that believes in country, and that there are men who need to go fight wars sometimes."


With the U.S. invasion of Iraq in early 2003, Noah saw an opportunity to serve his country. The Marine Corps had always been his Plan B if college didn't work out. At boot camp in Camp Pendleton, Calif., he quickly found that the reality of service didn't necessarily match up with tales of glory. "But when he'd been in for a while, he enjoyed the structure and the camaraderie, and the reality that it was black-and-white," Mike says.

"The grayness of life has always been difficult for him to deal with. He's a black-and-white guy."

Military service opened the world to Noah. He spent time in Okinawa, visited Singapore. He stayed in touch with his parents, but, Mike says, he "didn't talk a whole lot about his service."

From 2004 to 2006, Noah served three tours in Iraq with the 1st Marines 5th Battalion. His first tour put him into combat in the first battle of Fallujah, one of the grimmest chapters of the Iraq War. On his second tour he was in Ramadi, in Al Anbar Province, a stronghold for Iraqi insurgents.

On his third tour he returned to Fallujah. Noah and some fellow Marines were guarding a Humvee there, says Mike, when "a brand-new SUV darted out of a side street, pulled right up to them and blew up. Knocked unconscious all four of the guys, blew all the (Humvee) doors open."

Noah was hospitalized for 48 hours. Then he insisted on returning to active duty.

"He always plays down anything like that," Rosalie says. "He always feels like other guys have lost limbs and lost long as he could keep moving, he wasn't in it for glory, he was just there to do his best."

Mike doesn't discount the possibility that Noah suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Still, his only hint that war altered his son's mind came during one of Noah's few visits to Lake Ann after his third tour of duty. He and Mike were driving through the Michigan countryside in the family convertible. It was night. The moon was out. "I just, off the top of my head, said, 'You know, Noah, we'd often see the moon and think about you [in Iraq] and pray for you, and wonder what in the world you're doing or thinking about on the other side.' And he said, 'Dad, quite honestly, the only thing I was thinking about was there's someone out there trying to kill me.'"

Noah left the Marines in early 2007. Rosalie says he was looking for opportunities to earn more money, perhaps to eventually own his own business. He heard the Los Angeles Police Department was recruiting former soldiers for academy training. It seemed a decent start for civilian life. "He could start saving up but still be in some action situations," Rosalie says. "That helped him decide."

September 15, 2010, evening

Pippin strolled into the camp of three Arlee elk hunters at My Lake. Robert Schall, one of the hunters, says he looked like "a good, stable backpacker," a man "in good health." Pippin stayed in their camp long enough for two cups of coffee and a dose of chitchat. It was "real light conversation," Schall says. "We could see he had military-like fatigues on, and his mannerism was 'yes sir,' 'no sir,' 'thank you sir,' like he was talking to a general...Everything was just to the 'T.'"

click to enlarge MAP BY JONATHAN MARQUIS

Pippin told the group that he'd served three tours in Iraq. Considering what he'd likely been through, Schall says "he was on top of everything."

Pippin admitted he didn't have a map, but he appeared to have memorized everything about his intended route. Distances, feature names—he was "dead on" with most of it. "If he was a confused person," Schall says, "he damn sure had all his facts and figures." He refused Schall's offer of a meal but accepted a 20-ounce bottle of water.

"The only thing we questioned was that it was like he didn't have enough staples for what he said he was going to do," Schall says.

Pippin continued south along the trail, leaving the hunters to ponder the visit. Only after several hours did they reach a consensus that the man had something on his mind. Pippin seemed capable of undertaking the physical trek to White River Pass, where he indicated he was heading. But "there was a question in our mind when he left that something wasn't quite right," Schall says. "I by no means would have thought he'd have gone over the hill and blown his head off. He seemed like a man who had come to the mountains—which we do constantly—to work things out."

'He was good'

Noah moved to San Diego and enrolled in the LAPD academy in December 2007. The process was a struggle, Rosalie says, involving a long string of interviews. But once the academy accepted him, he flourished.

"Any of the people that have military experience, they were usually a step ahead of the other civilian recruits coming in," says one of his academy classmates, Branden Jew. "They already had that teamwork and leadership training, and the discipline to do it."

Noah's academy drill instructor quickly appointed him a squad leader, a duty that required Noah to submit morning reports on attendance and maintain a dialogue with his fellow recruits.

Jew remembers him as quiet, serious and well organized. "He was a good person to talk to. He'd always listen and we'd try to work things out...I think everybody liked him." Noah didn't socialize much, however, Jew says; he was "mostly just business." He didn't share stories from his Marines service.

Noah briefly roomed with another recruit in the LA suburb of Glendora while the two were in the academy. But he found housing expensive during training. The California National Guard was offering an impressive enlistment package at the time for anyone with previous military experience. Noah signed up in late 2007, committing to one weekend of duty a month and two weeks a year.

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