Florida Guardsman receives U.S. Surgeon General’s highest civilian honor

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jacob Hancock
  • 125th Fighter Wing

In January 2020, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States marked a new chapter in the historical landscape of our nation.

During this time of unprecedented global challenges, health workers like Maj. Kevin Cho Tipton worked to uplift moments of hope and resilience. In recognition of his efforts, Tipton, a critical care nurse practitioner with the 125th Fighter Wing of the Florida Air National Guard, received the Surgeon General’s Medallion on Sept. 18, 2023. Presented by Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, it is the highest honor the U.S. Public Health Service can bestow on civilians. According to the Office of the Surgeon General, it represents outstanding “acts of compassion, innovative mental health efforts, and exceptional leadership in advancing the well-being of ”. He is only the second Airman, and – joined by Alysha Lee of California – the first Asian American in history to receive this honor.

Throughout the pandemic, Tipton served in south Florida’s public hospital intensive care units.  At the height of the crisis, up to 70 percent of critically ill patients -- often including his colleagues and their families -- were lost. Despite this, his primary goal remained the safeguarding of human life while encapsulating the stories of dedication, empathy, and perseverance of his neighbors, peers, patients, and their loved ones. Following his initial work as a civilian, Tipton was mobilized to further serve Florida residents with the National Guard’s response to the pandemic. This Q&A explores his experiences, insights, and the impact of his work on the community and beyond.

What does the honor of receiving the U.S. Surgeon General’s Medallion mean to you?
To be honest, I was very humbled and surprised to even be considered. I never expected to be recognized in this way. However, what matters most is that it helped uplift the stories of those we lost and everyone left behind in a way that – I hope -- provides them with dignity. Most importantly, however, I wanted to ensure that this moment was about the families that I wish we could’ve done more for during the pandemic.

What was your reaction when you learned that you received this award and moreover, learning that you were just the second Airman to receive this honor?
In truth, I was shocked. My experiences were shared by countless Americans, and I didn’t feel that any of our contributions made us special. To me, the pandemic was about doing whatever we could to help – often in desperate circumstances. So, I decided to use my voice to call attention to the very human-driven moments of the pandemic.
That being said, among many firsts, it was humbling to be part of a ceremony that was meant to uplift our entire country. Born in Korea, I came to the United States as an infant immigrant in 1989. So, having been chosen to join with others in recognition of the sacrifice and work of millions was truly humbling — especially when remembering how lucky I was to have become an American in the first place. Though imperfect, our nation has given so much to so many and I’m proud to be counted among them.

Much of the work you accomplished during the pandemic led to this recognition. What do you believe distinguished you among the thousands of frontline healthcare workers who bravely fought to save lives?
Although I’m uncertain, I believe it was my efforts to connect with and uplift others in order to share the human stories behind the numbers we saw in the media. Through this work, I joined with folks across the nation dedicated to advocacy both in their communities and abroad to help save lives and protect livelihoods. Ultimately, I’m not sure why I was chosen for this honor, but I am very grateful to have been counted among the individuals and organizations that had an impact during the pandemic.

Did you leverage your experience during the pandemic to improve processes, help others or seek other professional opportunities?
I like to think so. By utilizing these experiences and uplifting the stories of the families we cared for, our guidance was adopted as part of a nationwide effort to help combat health worker burn out and improve medical care across the country.

What was a typical day like for you during the pandemic?
During the very worst moments of the pandemic, I was serving in our public hospitals in south Florida. Along with thousands of other health workers, we were committed to doing our best to save lives in nearly impossible circumstances. Witnessing the families of our patients suffer and pray with each other over the phone was heartbreaking. Seeing our neighbors lose their jobs, their savings, and (ironically) their access to healthcare through their insurance was just as painful. Ultimately, the darkest moments were when we lost mothers and fathers of young children, and watched their adult parents say goodbye to them on FaceTime.
We learned many lessons that I hope all of us remember should we ever face a crisis like this again.

How did this unprecedented era in our history affect you as a frontline worker? (i.e. did this change the way you provided care)
This was a collective experience that we all went through as the world learned more about the virus and the pandemic itself. I think, together, we all realized what we are truly capable of and found a way to meet the moment. There were teenagers acting as substitute teachers for their younger siblings. There were truck drivers across the country finding ways to get important goods from coast to coast. There are countless examples of folks proving that none of us accomplished anything alone, and all of us needed everyone to do our part. I think that is what I take away most from these last few years. In the end, there were no frontline workers, there were only individuals, families, and communities doing their best -- no matter where they lived, worked, or if they wore a uniform.

How did you balance your civilian and military commitments during that time?
That was difficult -- especially when Miami became one of the epicenters of the pandemic and military field hospitals were opened in nearby neighborhoods. Thankfully, my commander was able to ensure that I had the latitude to fulfill my civilian duties during the worst months of the crisis.

Were you activated for COVID response at any time? If so, when and where did you serve?
Yes, for two months in the Spring of 2021. During that time, I was activated for the vaccination missions and helped a team provide education and immunization services to thousands of personnel and their families across the state. I was very grateful to be part of the vaccine rollout and to help prevent the disease that was causing the death of so many of my patients. By that time, I had lost over 200 people – neighbors, coworkers, friends, and their families -- in our hospitals. To this day, that heartbreaking toll weighs on me heavily. Those experiences encourage me to do more and do better for those that I can, when I can, and where I can.

Did your military training aid you in your civilian career? If so, how?
Absolutely. The training that mentors gave me as early as when I was a private in the Army – and subsequently an ROTC cadet over a decade ago -- gave me the confidence to be both humble and assertive when necessary. Collectively, this allowed so many of us to both lead and follow when the time was right. Eventually, our actions fostered an atmosphere of collaboration that helped save lives. This was a common story for countless service members throughout the nation’s hospitals. When it was all over, I think our training solidified the notion that we are all capable of so much more than we might expect.

What do you love best about what you do as a healthcare provider?
Being able to give back to a community and country that has giving me so many opportunities in life is profoundly fulfilling. It gives me a purpose and the chance help where I can. Hopefully, this encourages others to recognize the best in others and do what they can, when they can, and where they can.

What’s next for you?
Less than two weeks after the ceremony, I was mobilized as one of the first members of my military specialty to serve as the primary critical care provider in a deployed environment. I look forward to returning home next year, rejoining my civilian hospital, and working to help improve lifesaving processes on the ground.

Ultimately, I believe that inspiring change starts with those that mean the most to us. If anything, I hope to remember this and always recognize that family and human connection are gifts that we must never take for granted.

*This article has been updated to add context to previous statements.