Mary Jo Pine’s motivations to join the Navy, and her work after it, are the same: education.
Veterans in need of help have a bundle of area and national programs and organizations designed to assist in many ways. Pine’s goal is to make sure veterans know about them.
Pine was named 2020 Veteran of the Year by HomeFront Resource Center, an area non-profit serving veterans, service members and families. Still, Pine doesn’t think she’s anything special.
She works at the Veterans Affairs Health Care System but also helps directly and indirectly with a laundry list of organizations aimed at supporting veterans. She is quick to point toward the work of others, and of the whole.
More: St. Cloud Stand Down sharpens focus on serving female veterans with new boutique
“I honestly don’t see myself as any veteran extraordinaire,” Pine said.
Her colleagues in the fight to care for veterans disagree.
“Mary Jo does anything and everything for all veterans,” said Kerri Schwegel, a former VA coworker who still works with Pine through St. Cloud Stand Down and is a veteran herself. “She doesn’t stop working. She doesn’t stop helping. It’s in her blood.”
Working to fill a need
Pine, a Sartell resident, said she applied to work for the VA in St. Cloud many times before she was hired in 2001.
“It wasn’t until after I started working there that I became more keenly aware of the veteran population and the issues that are in the forefront of them,” she said.
She has held a few roles while at the VA, including recently as suicide prevention coordinator. In that role, Pine helped veterans who called a hotline find the resources they needed to receive help.
Part of that job also included outreach. She was required to do about five events a month, Pine said.
Veterans Day 2020: St. Cloud to hold Veteran’s Day vehicle parade from downtown to Wilson Park
She estimates she did 20 or more, many with her personal time.
“Every time I go, I learn more about what the veterans need – the needs that are there,” Pine said.
Seeing those needs is what pushed her to keep attending. So many people, Pine said, don’t know what resources are available to them, and when she learns of something, she tries to elevate it and bring it to the attention of anyone who may need it.
“There’s a need,” Pine said. “I can’t say no, and I didn’t say no. If I could possibly do something, I did it.”
Pine, who is a registered nurse, now serves the VA in a newer role for her, with the Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program. This is a stipend program for qualified veterans who need a caregiver to help them through their day, she said. She meets with veterans and caregivers every 90 days to do wellness checks.
“That’s part of what I do is make sure people’s needs are met within (their) home, and make sure they are followed up with appointments” for mental health, primary care, therapy and with support for the caregivers, Pine said.
Serving her country
Pine was the eighth of 10 children, born and raised in Sauk Rapids. When she graduated high school in 1971, more than half of her siblings were still at home. Her father died when she was 12 years old. Her mother couldn’t afford to send her to college.
“I figured, OK, I can go join the military and get the GI bill,” Pine said.
Pine served as a Naval corpsman during the Vietnam War and Cold War, from 1973 to 1977. She completed boot camp in Orlando, Florida. She called it a “rude awakening” – and her first trip out of Minnesota. It was a whole new world.
“But at the same time, I excelled in what I did, where I never had that sense that I could have been that worldly person, or to be able to do that in this tough culture,” Pine said.
COVID-19 updates: State of Minnesota Veterans Day event to go virtual
She credits some of that to her upbringing, and her ability to adapt — a skill she said she learned living in a house with nine siblings.
“Your whole world is adapting, but you don’t realize that,” she said. “But that’s probably what helped me be successful.”
She said the military taught her to be productive and resilient.
After finishing basic training, she went to Class C school in Bainbridge, Maryland. Class C schools provide more specific duty training for service members, and for Pine, that meant training as a Navy radioman.
She received her top-secret security clearance, which required government interviews with many people Pine knew, including the priest at her local church in Sauk Rapids.
“You learned a lot of Morse code. You learned how to communicate on the teletype machines – just a lot of confidential information and how to transport it and, you know, how to engage with it,” Pine said.
She worked in ship to shore communications at a naval communications station in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where hundreds of teletype machines lived in a secure building doing a lot of back-and-forth communication. Pine said she was one of the first two women to be stationed here. She said her male peers were glad to have them there (though she felt their wives were less happy), and they treated her with respect.
“We did everything that they did,” Pine said – all the same tests and training.
Later, she worked on base in a dispensary, or small medical clinic.
‘You had to be the best’
After a little over a year in Puerto Rico, Pine went to San Diego for another Class C school — this time, to join the hospital corps.
At first, her request to do so was denied. Her dispensary coworkers, particularly one hospital corpsman, told her to fight it, and how: Write your congressman.
So she did. She contacted a Minnesota congressman and explained her desire to retrain (called cross-rating) and join the hospital corps.
“It was after that contact, within a week, I was informed that I would be leaving,” Pine said. “When my tour was up, I would leave and be cross-rating to the hospital corps.”
At the time, Pine didn’t perceive her initial denial to cross-rate as sexism. In retrospect, she’s unsure.
“No matter what you did, you had to be the best,” Pine said. “… Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t have gotten noticed.”
Schwegel, the veteran who used to work with Pine at the VA, said hearing Pine’s story does make her suspect sexism. Schwegel felt it herself from her time serving, and suspects what happened to her happened to Pine, too.
Schwegel served in the Air Force for 20 years and during the Gulf War. She worked in intelligence, but said restrictions imposed on women kept her from doing her job. She worked in special operations, which involved lots of deployment into enemy territory – for men. Women, Schwegel said, weren’t allowed into enemy territory.
She prepared materials for missions, for flights, for combat. She did the legwork, but couldn’t be there. According to Schwegel, this affected her promotions and award packages.
“You weren’t available to get combat medals or things like that,” she said. “You weren’t there.”
She had to keep pushing.
“You felt that you had to do better,” Schwegel said. “You had to take one more step.”
Her own experience in the military increases her positive perception of Pine’s own service, her attitude and her perseverance.
“It makes you appreciate that type of person even more, because they had to endure things they didn’t even think they endured,” Schwegel said.
Committed to care
After completing her training at Balboa Naval Medical Center, Pine moved to Bremerton, Washington, where she served for about 1 ½ years and was married. Pine was scheduled to move to Adak, Alaska with the Navy, but the post was considered isolated duty. She was pregnant, and, at the time, that forced her to choose.
“I had to make a choice,” Pine said. “Either be a new mom and take care of the baby, or be in the military.”
She left the Navy in May 1977, three weeks before her due date. Her husband, also a member of the military, was on a ship at the time, so Pine moved home to Sauk Rapids until he returned. Then, little by little, she chipped away at a college degree.
“Every base that we went to — which was a lot of them — … every community that we lived in, I took some college courses,” Pine said. “And so I probably have six or seven, maybe six to 10 different colleges listed on my college applications because every place I went, I took a college course here or there.”
When her husband left the military and the family moved back to the area in 1988, Pine went to college full-time through Austin Community College.
She applied at the VA in part because it allowed her to continue with some of her education (she finished her nursing degree at the College of St. Scholastica). But a big part of it was also her passion for long-term care.
“I wanted to be able to work with the veterans in that age group, and veterans, because those were the people that were part of the reason why we had the freedoms that we did,” Pine said. “They were our World War veterans, I and II at that time and the Korean War, and … I just had a strong inkling to be able to help them.”
Support local journalism. Subscribe to sctimes.com today.