WAR IN THE GULF: HOMEFRONT: MEMORIALS: Ranger buried at Arlington

Nora Achrati – Cox Washington Bureau
Friday, April 11, 2003

Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia — At the top of the hill here sits Fort Myer, home of the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment, the ”Old Guard,” the soldiers who stand watch over the dead. At the bottom is Cemetery Section 60.

Thousands of men and women lay between the fort and Section 60, casualties from conflicts extending from the Civil War to Afghanistan. Arlington is both a graveyard and memorial to American fighters.

On Thursday morning, Army Ranger Captain Russell B. Rippetoe became the first casualty from the war in Iraq to be buried there.

Rippetoe had been part of the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Company A, at Fort Benning.

Also Thursday in Georgia, the funeral was held for Private First Class Diego Rincon, 19, of Conyers, who was killed March 29 in Iraq along with three other soldiers when a suicide bomber posing as a taxi driver detonated a bomb at an Army roadblock. Rincon, a native of Colombia, has been awarded American citizenship posthumously.

His brother, Fabian, told the 500 mourners packed into the Conyers Seventh-day Adventist Church that the suicide bomber was a ”coward” who should ”burn in hell for what he did.”

”From all this, I can be sure of one thing,” he said. ”Freedom is expensive.”

Rippetoe and two other soldiers were killed a week ago at a U.S.-controlled checkpoint in northwest Iraq when a civilian car they were investigating exploded.

He had been a fire support officer, a soldier on the ground who calls for airstrikes to cover the infantry.

The 27-year-old's body was returned to his parents, Joe and Rita Rippetoe, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. They had moved recently from Avarda, Colorado, a Denver suburb where Russell Rippetoe had attended school. A military funeral was quickly arranged.

Soldiers killed in action have priority for burial at Arlington, where about 25 funerals take place each day. Cemetery representatives say every effort is made to accommodate fallen soldiers with due honors.

Rippetoe's was the eighth burial of the morning. Skies were gray and the cemetery fields were wet from rainfall the day before.

In Section 60, the ground was so muddy that workers waited until after the ceremony to dig the grave, worried it might collapse.

Arlington workers rolled out a long burlap mat, like a ceremonial carpet, to cover the muddy path from the pavement to the grave site.

More than 100 people walked to the site: first the band, playing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and an honor guard platoon, then the chaplain and the pallbearers carrying Rippetoe's silver casket off the six-horse caisson. All wore the dress blues of the honor guard.

Eight Rangers from Rippetoe's 75th Regiment stood as honorary pallbearers. More followed as mourners, mingling with the captain's family and friends.

Rippetoe's plot, in the middle of the section, was marked by wreaths and a wooden stake.

His sister, Rebecca Kim, and her husband, Tom, sat graveside with Rippetoe's mother, Rita, and his father, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Rippetoe, in full military dress.

Chaplain James May echoed what family and friends had told reporters about Rippetoe in the week before the funeral: ”When he joined, he joined full force. When he participated, he participated with everything he had.”

Raising his voice to be heard over the rumble of jets overhead, May prayed for the 75th Regiment and read from the Bible.

”I know that Russell was a man of faith,” he said, recalling that Rippetoe wore a verse from Joshua inscribed on the back of his dog tag: ”Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Rippetoe's father, a veteran of two Vietnam combat tours that left him disabled, stood to watch a seven-member firing party discharge three volleys. Holding his disabled right arm with his left, he saluted his son.

One at a time, Rangers filed by the Rippetoes, stopping to pay their respects.

Joe Rippetoe broke down briefly when they knelt to present him his son's medals: a Bronze Star Medal for Valor and a Purple Heart, both for his service in Iraq. He had also earned distinctions for serving in Afghanistan from October 2001 to January 2002.

The half-hour ceremony ended and guests crossed the burlap runway. Some touched the coffin as they left.

Rippetoe's headstone will not arrive for another three months. It will be the simple 1 1/2-ft. white marble tablet used for anyone interred at Arlington. Thousands and thousands of them cascade in perfect rows down the cemetery hills.

The remains of more than 280,000 people have either been buried at Arlington or encased in the cemetery's columbarium after cremation. With about 6,500 funerals a year, space on the cemetery grounds is tight.

Cemetery representatives say that at the current rate, burial space will last only until 2024. They say the Army, which maintains the cemetery, is working with Congress to annex surrounding lands to provide space until 2075.

Restrictions for burial at Arlington are complex and have been tightened slightly over the years, but soldiers who die in action will always maintain priority.

As of Thursday, plans were being made to inter four more Iraq war casualties there in the next few weeks.

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