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Honoring an American war hero

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RestaurantTo the editor:

When I learned of the recent death of legendary Marine Col. John Ripley, I cried. I will always wish I could have been in his presence just one more time.

Winner of the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, the late Col. Ripley is best remembered for the amazing feat of blowing the Dong Ha bridge in Vietnam after being ordered to "hold and die" with 600 South Vietnamese soldiers against a force of 2,000 North Vietnamese and 200 tanks in the 1972 Easter offensive. Without his heroics -- he literally hung from beneath the bridge like a trapeze artist to plant explosives -- the Saigon evacuation might have come in 1972 instead of 1975. Though Ripley had accepted that he would not survive the operation, he must have heard the words in his mind that God spoke to Joshua in commissioning him to lead the Israelites: "Be strong and courageous. I will be with you." (Deut. 31:23)

Being married to a Vietnam Marine veteran who is also a veteran of the Saigon evacuation, I have a special place in my heart for this amazing breed of men.

I was privileged to have served with Ripley when he was a battalion commander with the 2nd Marine Regiment at Camp Lejeune, N.C. I was attached to the 36th Marine Amphibious Unit -- what is today the 26th MAU -- as a public affairs officer for a series of deployments leading up to NATO Operation Anorak Express in northern Norway in March 1980.

The first two of those evolutions were a Combined Arms Exercise at 29 Palms' Combat Center in the Mojave Desert and cold-weather training at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in the Sierra Nevada near Bridgeport, Calif. I was the first woman officer ever to be attached to a Marine Amphibious Unit. Tensions were high because American hostages were being held in Iran, and every Marine in the unit desperately wanted to be diverted there.

I will never forget how Ripley, the BLT commander for the 36th MAU, kept shaking his head in amazement every time I showed up, camera and tape recorder in hand, on another hill his troops "captured" in the massive Mojave.

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"You're still here?" he would rib me. "Just doing my job, Colonel," I'd retort. I managed to snap one photo that he really liked, although it was a fluke. He was atop his command amtrac, scanning the terrain with his binoculars. The sun hit the lenses just right, forming a pair of stars. He never got to wear those stars. Pity.

Ripley was more about making stars of those who served under his command. He wasn't afraid of letting his young Marines talk to the media. He knew they were the corps' best asset in telling our story.

My other favorite image of Ripley came during the MAU's mock amphibious assault at Cape Cod in January 1980. Picture-perfect, of course, with the requisite media on hand. The Marines were fighting the perception of being ill-prepared for cold-weather warfare at that time. But just like our new commander-in-chief, Ronald Reagan (who finally freed our hostages), we put on our packs and cold-weather gear and completely dispelled that illusion in Norway two months later.

After the landing at Cape Cod's Scusset Beach, a large column of Marines and armor marched across the Saginaw Bridge. It was lined with locals, waving American flags and shouting, "We love you!" Music to our tired ears. Ripley looked around at the show of appreciation with tears in his eyes. It had been a long four years under Jimmy Carter.

I'm sorry that John Ripley won't be around to wish every Marine he knew "Happy Birthday" on Nov. 10. I will gladly raise a toast to him with my husband (who was also part of the 36th MAU in 1979-80) on that day.

"Semper Fi, Colonel," until we meet again on the streets of heaven (which, as the Marines Hymn testifies, are guarded by Leathernecks).

Debbie Thurman

Debbie Thurman is an award-wining columnist and author who writes from Monroe, Va. Her e-mail address is debbie@debbiethurman.com.

[Posted November 08, 2008]

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