Jack Vaessen: A courageous survivor

May 2015

Jack Vaessen, who will be 99 in July, knows how to get out of places he doesn’t want to be. When he went down with his ship during the attack on Pearl Harbor, rescuers pulled him out of a hole in the bottom of the USS Utah.

“They bombed it and it sank and I went down with it,” he recalled during an interview in his San Mateo apartment. Vaessen, a San Francisco native who has lived in San Mateo for decades, was awarded a Navy Cross, the second-highest military decoration for valor awarded to a member of the United States Navy.

Jack Vaessen“Pearl Harbor was terrifying, but I learned how to take care of myself,” he recalled. In the presidential commendation, the former Fireman Second Class is credited with staying with the ship and keeping the lights burning as long as possible, showing “exceptional courage, presence of mind, and devotion to duty” – all qualities that have helped him with some other tight fixes.

For instance, following his negative experience in a Nevada nursing facility seven years ago, Jack spoke with his congresswoman, adding his voice to others who shared similar situations. Ultimately, these efforts resulted in major improvements to Nevada laws protecting the rights of elders.

More recently, Jack suffered a stroke and was sent to a skilled nursing facility, where he was expected to live out his life. His health improved enough for him to be released, which was when he was referred to Mission Hospice & Home Care for additional services.

“His goal was to come home, and he made it,” said Mission Hospice social worker Karri Kaiser. “Jack is pretty much the definition of a survivor.”

In April, Jack received his pin from We Honor Veterans, a national hospice provider awareness campaign conducted by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs, during a ceremony at his home that included several Mission Hospice staff and volunteers who are also veterans.

John Akin, a former Navy flight surgeon, Mission Hospice volunteer and one of Jack’s regular visitors, said it was especially meaningful for him to be a part of the ceremony.

“He’s a tough guy,” said John. “He’s a real example to us. We all want to be special. We all want to be part of a special team and we want to be able to serve the other members of our team.”

Mission Hospice’s end-of-life services for Jack also have included helping him finalize plans for his final resting place. Asked if he wanted to be interred in Hawaii on the sunken Utah, he replied, “No, I was buried there once already and that was enough for me.” When his time comes, Jack has decided to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA.