The Lost Son 

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

Page 3 of 4

"He was good," says Sgt. Scott Hegerle, Noah's Guard commanding officer in San Diego. "He was always motivated, always cooperative, always enthusiastic. No matter what kind of dirty detail you gave him, it got done." Many of the Guard's reserve soldiers in San Diego are "police officers, firemen, customs agents, border guards," Hegerle says. Many of them, Hegerle included, are also former Marines. Yet even in the Guard, Noah didn't have many buddies. "He really wasn't that type of guy," Hegerle says. "He was very professional in almost all his dealings."

Noah graduated from the police academy in May 2008 and was detailed to southeast LA, an area of the city known for racially charged gang violence. In 2008, he set his sights on a new goal: a deployment with his Guard unit to Kosovo. Rosalie, his mother, says he was eager to see Eastern Europe and had his heart set on the opportunity. Training for the assignment brought him closer to home, to Indiana, just in time for Christmas. It was the last time the entire Pippin family was together.

A few weeks later, Noah injured his knee when a helicopter malfunctioned during a training exercise. Instead of Kosovo, he was sent to Fort Knox, Tennessee, for surgery, then back to LA for rehab. He worked a desk job in the interim and returned to the LAPD when he'd recovered.

click to enlarge Noah Pippin, standing left, during a training exercise at the Los Angeles Police Academy, 2008. - PHOTO COURTESY BRANDEN JEW
  • Photo courtesy Branden Jew
  • Noah Pippin, standing left, during a training exercise at the Los Angeles Police Academy, 2008.

Hegerle says Noah was very disappointed that he was unable to move forward with his unit.

Hegerle says rumors began to circulate in Noah's unit early last year about a possible mobilization in 2012, though no specific location was mentioned. Mike, Noah's father, says Noah hadn't volunteered for any specific duty assignments abroad, but his son believed that, given his previous combat experience, any mobilization would result in him being stationed in Afghanistan.

Then, in June 2010, Noah quit the LAPD. He left his home and car in Southern California and traveled back to Michigan to visit his family. His next duty assignment with the guard was set for the weekend of September 11.

When his son left Michigan to drive back to California, "he had decided that he was just going to try something different," Mike says, unsure what that something was.

September 15, 2010, dusk

Vern Kersey of Great Falls was hiking near his family's camp below Salt Mountain with his 11-year-old son, Trevor, when they spotted a man in a green poncho filling a gallon milk jug out of lower Rock Creek. The two hailed Pippin, but his response was curt. Minutes later, Donelle Kersey and her 16-year-old daughter, Shelby, watched as Pippin wandered down the trail right by their camp. When Donelle greeted him, she says, Pippin patted his hip calmly. "Just to let you know," he said, "I'm packing."

"I took it just as a courtesy," Donelle says. "'I have a pistol,' you know? Didn't want me to freak out."

Donelle wasn't sure what to make of the hiker. Her family is seasoned in the unpredictability of Montana's backcountry. They had come prepared. Pippin hadn't.

"My immediate feeling was, 'This guy shouldn't be in here like this. He needs to stay here. It's getting dark, he obviously needs some food, he doesn't have a tent.' It almost made me sick to my stomach."

Pippin's gear was minimal, Donelle recalls, and the clothes beneath his poncho could not have been warm enough for the cold, the rain and the wind that can develop in the Bob Marshall without warning in the fall.

click to enlarge The Kersey family’s camp below the Chinese Wall, the morning after their encounter with Noah Pippin. - PHOTO COURTESY DONELLE KERSEY
  • Photo courtesy Donelle Kersey
  • The Kersey family‚Äôs camp below the Chinese Wall, the morning after their encounter with Noah Pippin.

The sight of him triggered a protective, almost motherly instinct in Donelle. "I engaged in a conversation with him, but my focus was trying to get him to relax because I wanted him to stay. I had this feeling in my gut. So I started talking to him. 'Where did you come from?' 'How long have you been out?'

"He told us he'd been out for 13 days, that he'd come from up in the Hungry Horse area. He said he was going to follow the [Chinese] Wall, and I said, 'You know, the trail goes away from the Wall and out towards Benchmark.'"

Pippin never answered her directly when she asked if he had a map, Donelle says. He seemed to indicate that he had one buried in his pack, but when she invited him to look over hers, he became engrossed. She told him the trail turned east, away from the Wall, near Cliff Mountain. He indicated he planned to leave the trail and bushwhack to White River Pass.

She tried to convince him to stay, she says, to accept some food, to not leave the trail. But he was "hell-bent" on his plan, as if hiking the length of the Chinese Wall were an item on a bucket list. He seemed reserved and distracted.

"So I asked, 'Well, will you eat with us? We've got way too much food and we're going to have to pack all this food out.' He wouldn't. His remark to me was, 'Oh, I'll just crawl up under a tree.' It was a bit disturbing to me, honestly it was. It just didn't sit right."

Vern Kersey wasn't part of that conversation. He and his son remained about 40 yards away. But they heard every word. As Pippin left the Kersey's camp, headed south, Donelle says her daughter's active imagination kicked in. She asked, "What's up with that guy? He doesn't have a tent or anything. What if he's a psycho?"

"I said, 'Shelby, this is a man who, okay, wife and kids just left him and he wants to be by himself.'"

Connecting the dots

On Sept. 11, 2010, Sgt. Scott Hegerle called Michigan from San Diego and informed Mike and Rosalie Pippin that their son had failed to show up for a training weekend with the California National Guard. He had a simple question: Where was Noah?

"We said, 'Well, he's supposed to be with you. Don't you know where he is?'" Mike says. "We thought, 'He's not AWOL, he's not really in any trouble, they're allowed to skip drills. Maybe he's just running late or decided to take that weekend off.' But when we hadn't heard from him for a week or two more, and his sergeant hadn't heard from him, we began to grow concerned."

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