By Clay Latimer
Courtesy of the Rocky Mountain News
April 3, 2004
GAITHERSBURG, Maryland - In the hours before he left for Iraq, Russell Rippetoe found time in the anxious scramble to crowd in some personal business.
Moving through a mental checklist, the Army Ranger called his best friend in Colorado, taped a note to his locker at Fort Benning, Georgia, arranged for a bouquet of flowers to be sent to his mother and phoned his father at their Arvada home three times, though Russell had little to say. When his son called again, Joe Rippetoe, a retired Ranger, Lieutenant Colonel and disabled Vietnam veteran, knew enough to feel uneasy.
"It initially took my breath. I didn't know what to say. I tried to be strong, but I lost it," he said. "I couldn't understand why he had called so many times. I didn't read between the lines."
That was the last time Joe Rippetoe spoke to his son.
A year ago today, Russell Rippetoe, Captain of the Broomfield High School soccer team, homecoming king and an Eagle Scout, was manning a nighttime checkpoint near Hadithah Dam in western Iraq when a car approached carrying Iraqi civilians. A pregnant woman got out and ran screaming from the car, Rippetoe stepped toward her, the car exploded, and he and two other soldiers were killed, victims of a terrorist ruse.
On a gloomy and windy morning a week later, Rippetoe, 27, became the first casualty of the Iraq conflict to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the hallowed ground that is a graveyard and memorial to more than 250,000 American fighters stretching to the Revolutionary War.
When honor guard soldiers pulled his son's flag-covered coffin from the caisson, Joe Rippetoe, using his left hand to guide his right into position, fired off a final salute to his only son.
On Memorial Day, President Bush invited Joe and his wife, Rita, to the White House for breakfast and mentioned Russell in his annual address in the Arlington amphitheater.
Soon the drums and bugles moved on. But not Joe.
On another overcast and blustery morning at Arlington almost a year later, he struggles to tell his story. He inspects pebbles, pennies and other tokens of remembrance at his son's tombstone, reads the simple words on a simple marker, walks over to two fresh, muddy graves and comes back to Grave No. 7860, an old soldier conscripted into an ancient nightmare.
"I've gone the whole cycle now. I've been the soldier, I've been the one waiting at home for phone calls and mail and now I've buried my son," he said.
"My son was just a big, lovable teddy bear. He always was the type to look out for people. The way he smiled at you, the way he looked at you - you were his. He had such a big heart. And that's what killed him."
For the Rippetoes, military service is a family tradition. Joe's father was a military man. Joe's uncles served in World War II and Korea. His nephew was in the thick of Vietnam. According to family lore, a Rippetoe served in George Washington's army.
When he moved to Gaithersburg in March 2002, Joe Rippetoe, 67, converted an upstairs office into a War Room, where he has gathered old combat maps, old photos (he looks remarkably like his son), combat gear and his and Russell's medals.
He also has collected Russell's final possessions: dog tags, a scorched religious emblem, two Bibles, a wallet with about $40 and a diary that chronicles his final days and thoughts, which Joe leafs through periodically.
March 27 - At 18:00 . . . the Shock and Awe air campaign started. I've been having chest pains. I think it is from all the excitement; just trying to relax and (know) I work with the best and I know my job. I think we've got the planning down now; it is time to do it. I hope my family is not too stressed out . . . Well, it should definitely go down in the history books.
Joe, too, was eager to get in the game as an ROTC student at Eastern Michigan, where he was a varsity wrestler and student body president in the late 1950s.
"I was always physical, and the military was the most physical," he said. "When you're short, you seem to be a little more competitive because you're at a disadvantage. That's why I was in very physical sports."
After graduation, Rippetoe started a 28-year career that included three tours in Europe, three years at the Pentagon as an intelligence director and seven years at the Strategic Air Command in Nebraska, where he helped select bombing sites in the former Soviet Union.
During two tours in Vietnam, Rippetoe led intelligence-gathering missions in enemy-held territory, dropping into booby-trapped hot zones with minimal supplies.
"When you drop into the boonies, you not only have to worry about the bush, you've got to worry about trip wires and big, nasty rocks with spikes, which come out of trees," he said. "You've got to worry about limbs with big spikes, or about falling into a pit with big stakes.
"One morning, a replacement jumped in and landed on a mine. We couldn't find any of him.
"We constantly replaced the point guy because of the pressure. Your heart just pounded. We were in hot water all the time."
In between foreign assignments, Rippetoe was tooling through Kentucky in his Grand Prix when he spotted two women at a stop sign; one was Rita, a Louisville resident, whom he married in a traditional military ceremony.
"Everybody was in dress uniform," Rippetoe said. "When I want to feel like I'm on Cloud Nine, I put on my uniform."
Russell was born in 1975 in Heidelberg, West Germany, three years after his sister, Rebecca, who lives in Aurora with her husband.
"Russell got his fire, and the drive to be the best, to do things right, from his father," said Brent Tuccio, a longtime friend. "Joe can be a fireball. When Russell got like that, he'd look at me and say, 'That was a Joe moment.'
"He wanted to be like his mom, wanted to be passive, wanted to be laid-back, wanted to watch things from a distance. He's half like his dad, half like his mom."
Joe Rippetoe left the military in 1988, suffering from chronic pain and post-traumatic stress syndrome from combat in Vietnam, and moved his family to Broomfield as Russell entered seventh grade.
"Because he didn't know anybody, he'd shake everybody's hand when he introduced himself," Tuccio said. "People kind of gave him a hard time for doing that because it was seventh grade. He was very mature. He wanted to be friends with everybody."
Rippetoe also joined a church group, forming friendships that lasted until his death, including one with Laura Clark, one of many Colorado friends who attended his funeral.
"I didn't have a date to my senior prom," Clark said. "We didn't go to the same school, and he had a soccer tournament that weekend. But he played soccer all day Saturday, took me to prom and played soccer all day Sunday. He knew how much I wanted to go. He was that kind of guy."
Rippetoe threw himself into football, karate, wrestling and distance running, but soccer was the ultimate kick. Although he wasn't a gifted athlete, he transformed himself into a tough, solid sweeper. As captain of the Broomfield High team in his senior year, he broke a leg and collarbone. "He was a grinder," Tuccio said.
Rippetoe received rave reviews from Broomfield's water boy - Joe Rippetoe, who dispensed water, gum, towels and encouraging words from his sideline perch in a golf cart.
"I took care of the men," he said.
Russell Rippetoe entered Metro State in 1994, signed up for Air Force ROTC and moved into an apartment, working a 30-hour week at LoDo restaurants to pay his bills. With model good looks, he earned a spot as an extra in a TV mini-series and was a pinup in the Men of LoDo, an annual calendar promoting lower downtown.
Unable to fly jets because of poor vision, Rippetoe transferred to the University of Colorado's Army ROTC program as a junior. He left Denver at 5 a.m. for training in Boulder, then returned for a 9 a.m. class at Metro, where he studied criminal justice, hoping to eventually become an FBI agent.
With his father pinning his second lieutenant bars on his uniform, Rippetoe received his Army commission in 1999 in Boulder.
"Joe was so proud, you could see it on his face," said Jim Mason, a neighbor at the time. "It was very moving."
From there, Rippetoe went to Fort Sill (Oklahoma) for Field Artillery Officer Basic Training, and eventually to elite Ranger training, which fewer than 55 percent of applicants complete.
Nine years ago, three Rangers died of exposure after spending eight hours in chest-deep, 52-degree water during jungle training in a Florida swamp. But Rippetoe not only completed the course, he flourished, and in April 2002, he formally joined the 75th Ranger Regiment, the unit portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down.
As a fire support officer, his job was to call in air strikes on selected ground targets.
Later that year, he left for a three-month tour in Afghanistan, carrying a combat-tailored map his father had prepared.
During lulls in action, Rippetoe played pickup soccer games, wrestled with buddies, laughed and chatted. But the stress became increasingly evident as the weeks passed, especially after Rippetoe, for the first time, saw men die.
Anticipating his return, Rippetoe wrote to his parents: "(I want) to go to New York, Miami or Vegas - somewhere just to let my head clear. I think everything will be the same for me, Mom. You and I have talked about me going somewhere and going back with a different attitude about things. I think about that a lot . . . Dad I still want to sit on the back porch with you and talk about (your) stories and my stories. I know you've got a couple of yours hiding."
When Rippetoe returned to the United States on September 22, 2002, his eyes seemed dulled, a look that his father recognized from Vietnam.
"When a new guy came in, his eyes were bright and glistening, but after about three times in the boonies . . ." he said.
Added Tuccio: "Things were different. He was much more reserved. He still wanted to enjoy things; he really wanted to go out for dinner, loosen up, get that edge off. But I don't think he did a good job of accomplishing that. That was definitely the first change in him."
At his sister's wedding party October 26, Rippetoe saw his family for the final time. For the next six months, the Rangers received restricted and classified training; Rippetoe trained with an Olympic marksman.
"Russell was one of the first people I saw when they got back from Afghanistan," said Army Spc. Chad Thibodeau, who was wounded in the attack that killed Rippetoe. "They'd probably been on the ground for a half-hour. But he was like, 'Come over here.'
"So I went over there, and he immediately put me at ease. 'How is the wife? Is she settled in?'
"His leadership potential was unbelievable. He was charismatic in every way. The first time I met Joe, I knew exactly where Russell got it - the confidence, the general caring about other people. Russell always put himself at the back of the line."
By February 2003, there were more than 180,000 U.S. air, land and sea personnel arrayed against Iraq, and the number was growing daily.
Rippetoe anxiously awaited his next assignment.
"He'd called me right before he left for Afghanistan, but for some reason it didn't hit me hard," Tuccio said.
"But this was different. He made it clear that this was a horribly worrisome situation. I know (death) crossed his mind; he called me when he filled out his will. He told me, 'This is for real.'
"But he was ready to go; he knew he had to be."
As Rippetoe departed for Iraq, he started a combat diary.
March 8 - I got tired of lying to my family. Like everyone else, I let them know we were leaving the country for Iraq the next day. I could hear and feel my mom lose a breath. Mom and Dad both cried. It always sucks to hear your mother cry.
March 9 - It's like everyone is trying to get into the fight. Everyone is trying to make plans to get into the fight. No one really knows who is going where. Frustrating. Rangers are the only ones willing . . . (and) who've been asked to try to jump into Baghdad's Saddam International Airport. I wasn't nervous at all before, but the . . . more I learn how (Saddam's) going to try to stop us . . .
March 16 - It's been one week, but it feels like it's been very quick . . . It's pretty weird (to jump into Baghdad). Who does that? Hope the family is not too stressed out. Watched a show today about POWs in 1990, (the) first Iraq War. That sucks. But they didn't die. They now all have families so I guess they are good . . . Every day we get intelligence briefings on what we are going to do. Today (Saddam) was putting dirt piles on the runway to obstruct the runway so we couldn't land. He is making large holes and putting explosives in them, booby-trapping them for jumpers to land on. Nice.
March 21 - We just got the call from the CO that in three days we're going to jump into Baghdad International Airport . . . It looks like it's getting close to showtime. Hope all the air-defense artillery is gone.
March 23 - (The airport plan is abandoned). I wanted to jump to see if I would hold up to the stress and do my job to the standard of all the Rangers.
March 25 - Watched some chick surfer movie. It passed the time.
March 27 - (As the Shock and Awe campaign began) Think about what Mom and I talked about: All things happening for a reason, and God knows the reason.
April 2 - On 28th of March I did my first jump into (airfield) in Western Iraq. No resistance. But about 10 got hurt. We secured about 25 buildings, two detainees.
On March 29, Joe and Rita pulled up to their new home in Maryland, where Rita was starting a new job at the Department of Justice. Propped on the doorstep was a vase of flowers. "Mom, don't worry, we'll see you soon," an attached card read.
On the night of April 3 in Iraq, Rippetoe and his men were inspecting cars as they lined up at a checkpoint more than 7,000 miles from their American homes.
A woman jumped out of a car while screaming, "I'm hungry, I need food and water."
When Rippetoe, Staff Sergeant -Nino D. Livaudais, 23, of Utah, and Specialist Ryan P. Long, 21, of Seaford, Delaware, ran up to her, the car exploded, killing all three Rangers. The woman and the driver of the car also were killed.
"I remember the vehicle actually exploding," Thibodeau said. "I woke up a minute or two later, I'm guessing. Then I was completely conscious of everything. It was very, very clear in my mind exactly what had happened. Nobody had to tell me: It was a suicide bombing or car bombing."
Doctors worked furiously on the victims at a nearby collection point before loading them on a chopper.
"I could hear them working on Russell; he was on my left side," Thibodeau said. "They were talking among themselves as they loaded the bird. I heard them say, 'We've got two injured and three KIA (killed in action). Nobody had to tell me what had happened to Russell."
Hearing a pre-dawn knock on their door, Joe and Rita climbed from bed, headed down a hall, descended a flight of stairs, and as they hit the final step, saw three Rangers through a window. The Rippetoes collapsed into each other's arms.
"You don't have to say anything; I've done what you're doing," Joe told the soldiers.
More than 100 of Rippetoe's family and friends attended the funeral, and eight Rangers from his unit were honorary pallbearers. Next to the grave were framed pictures of Rippetoe as a smiling baby, as a soldier in fatigues smiling and holding a rifle and as a son kissing his mother on the cheek.
Thibodeau left his bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to attend the funeral. Joe Rippetoe insisted he ride from a meeting area to the gravesite in his limousine.
"When I got in, I think the first thing his mom said was, 'We don't have a son anymore, at least not one we can talk to every day, so I expect a few phone calls from you. You have one mom, and you're married so you probably kind of have a second mom, so now you have a third mom - and another father and sister,' " Thibodeau said.
"They're a remarkable family. Russell is still an inspiration for me. I'm pretty much a lifer now. Maybe someday I'll be able to complete some of the things Russell started, some of the things Russell won't have a chance to do."
After the ceremony, the Rippetoes received the flag that draped the coffin. A few days later, Joe discovered shell casings from the 21-gun salute in the folds of the flag.
In retrospect, Joe had sensed his son's uneasiness as he departed for Iraq, a feeling that was driven home when he traveled to Fort Benning to collect Russell's belongings. His clothes and other possessions were neatly aligned on a bed, which was highly unusual. And his final note - the one attached to his locker - explained what he wanted if he died.
"I want a military funeral, and I want it to be my people," it read.
Russell Rippetoe had a premonition he would die.
"It was creepy," his father said last Memorial Day.
But Joe had been apprehensive as well; in fact, he had prepared a combat booklet for Russell, warning him to remain vigilant at all times. In the end, though, Russell led with his heart.
"He wanted to help that woman," he said.
As the first anniversary of his son's death neared, Rippetoe remained a dedicated soldier, helping other soldiers and their families. When he learned a Ranger would be buried in Erie, Pennsylvania, the next day, Rippetoe hopped in his car and made it to the funeral in time. "If there's a funeral on the East Coast, I'm there," he said.
He works closely with a man in Texas who produces the "Shield of Strength," a 1-by-2-inch emblem that hung on the chain around Rippetoe's neck when he was killed. The shield displays a U.S. flag on one side, and a quote from Joshua 1:9 on the other: "I will be strong and courageous. I will not be terrified, or discouraged, for the Lord my God is with me wherever I go."
But Joe Rippetoe also broods - about his life, his son's life and missed opportunities.
"We had a good relationship, but there are still many, many things I would have liked to have done," he said. "Instead of saying, 'Son, how's the oil in your cars,' instead of worrying about all the knickknack things, it should have been, 'Hey, Hon, let's go to a football game, let's do this, let's do that.' I was too rigid, too serious.
"I wanted so much to be the best parent. But everything took a back seat to my work. My priorities were all screwed up. I talked the talk, but I didn't walk the walk. Anyone can be a father; it takes a lot to be a dad.
"I can't see Russell now; I can't touch him now," he added, standing at his son's grave. "But I can talk to him. I was blessed to have him as my son. When my wife dies and I die, we'll be interred here, next to him."
Army Captain Russell B. Rippetoe
March 19, 2004
To those who knew the energetic, good-hearted and above all physical force that was Russell B. Rippetoe, it still doesn't seem possible that he lies buried in grave No. 7860, Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, the first casualty of the war in Iraq to be laid in that hallowed ground.
Two of Rippetoe's men were killed with him, but two survived, in part because Rippetoe ordered them to stay back as he approached the car bombers' vehicle. That kind of caution was typical because "Russell loved his men," said his father, retired Lieutenant Colonel Joe Rippetoe.
The younger Rippetoe's tendency to sacrifice himself for the team was a constant. As captain of the Broomfield High School soccer team, he broke a leg and his collarbone, his father said. As homecoming king, Russell refused to let the collarbone keep him from the big dance. He attended graduation on crutches because of the broken femur.
Rippetoe approached the Army with the same zeal as he did soccer, football, karate, wrestling or distance running. Not content just to be in the Army, he became a Ranger, "the cream of the crop," his father said. Rippetoe won numerous commendations, including a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars. He intended to join the FBI or Secret Service after the Army.
Always, said his father, "a friend of those who weren't popular," Rippetoe inspired fierce loyalty in his men. On the day of his funeral, one of the men injured in the bomb blast insisted on leaving his hospital bed, despite having surgery scheduled that day, and attended the service in a wheelchair.
When the wheelchair became mired in the Arlington mud, Specialist Chad Thibodeau lifted himself from the chair and limped to his commanding officer's grave site.
It was something Rippetoe would have understood.