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'Be Strong and of Good Courage' Comforts Grieving Father

By Dennis Ryan
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2003 – Retired Army Lt. Col. Joe Rippetoe breakfasted at the White House on Memorial Day morning and afterwards was ushered in to meet President Bush.

Joe's son, Russell, was the first casualty of the Iraq War to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on April 10. The captain, assigned to Company A, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Benning, Ga., died from injuries on April 3.

Bush remembered the fallen soldier during his May 26 Memorial Day address in the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.

"Russell Rippetoe served with distinction in Operation Iraqi Freedom, earning both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart," the president said.

"On the back of his dog tag were engraved these words from the book of Joshua, 'Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of good courage. Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with thee.' This faithful Army captain has joined a noble company of service and sacrifice gathered row by row."

The elder Rippetoe felt honored and pleased that the president took the time out of his busy schedule to meet with service members' families, even though he is still grieving for his lost boy.

The combat veteran compared the levels of emotion of watching the war from afar, of hearing about it face to face, and of feeling the crushing tragedy of loss. "When we (he and wife, Rita) were watching the war on TV, it was like a movie," the old soldier said. "When he came home from Afghanistan, it was a story. When you lose (a loved) one, that war becomes very personal.

"In two combat tours in Vietnam I saw so much dying," he recalled. "If you've been in combat, war is ugly. They were only able to recognize Russell because of his dog tags."

Fighting back sobs, the father described Russell, nicknamed "Rusty," as an Eagle Scout, high school soccer team captain and homecoming king. But he was most proud of his son as a Ranger.

"The 75th Rangers, that's what I'd call a real outfit," Rippetoe said. "They live and breathe together, and die together."

He recalled the haunting visit to inform him and his wife of the tragic news. He said he knew it was bad when he looked out the door of his Maryland home almost two months ago and saw soldiers.

"I've knocked on doors and said, 'Your son or daughter was killed,'" he said. "When those three people showed up at my door, we knew."

The 56-year-old disabled veteran of two tours in Vietnam told the chaplain and casualty officers: "You don't have to say anything. I've been there."

Looking back, the father said he felt his son's uneasiness before he shipped out for Iraq. Then he saw evidence of the same in the state of Russell's apartment near Fort Benning when he went to dispose of the property.

"It was creepy," Joe Rippetoe said. "All of his stuff was laid out as if he had a premonition. It wasn't Russell. It was too organized." The father noted that he gave away many of his son's belongings to his unit. He said he even donated Russell's car to a soldier there.

The father has flown an illuminated flag every day and night since his son's earlier deployment to Afghanistan. "Our boys fight for our flag and our country at all hours," he noted.

The father is constantly reminded of his loss, whether it's opening an item that belonged to Russell or seeing a young man his son's age at a local breakfast place.

"Today, a young man Rusty's age, 26 or 27, was talking with another man," Joe said. "And I looked over and I was jealous. I don't have a son. I am the last Rippetoe. I saw so much killing and suffering in Vietnam. Coupled with what happened to my son, it's hard to take."

The veteran of 28 years as an Army officer, though deeply saddened by recent events, holds his head high.

"I am one proud father, to be blessed with the family life I've had," he said. "I would join and go back in the service in a nanosecond if they'd let me."

(Dennis Ryan is a staff writer for the Pentagram, the Ft. Myer, Va., military community newspaper.)

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