Friday, November 7, 2008

Courage can be catching

Courage can be catching
By Anita Susan Brenner

Len and I spent last Sunday morning helping hundreds of totally cute children write enclosure letters for Operation Gratitude ( care packages. We did this, of course, at Adat Ari El Synagogue in nearby Valley Village.

A lot of the kids began their letters with “Dear Soldier.” My job was to suggest other salutations. I told the kids that “Dear Servicemember” or “Dear Troops” or “Dear Hero” would include all branches of service.

Other branches of service? We explained that some of the recipients would be sailors. Some would be Air Force personnel. Or my favorite, Marines.

When we got home, we heard that Col. John Ripley, a Marine, had died.

Col. Ripley is famous for an extraordinary act of bravery in the Vietnam War. It happened at the Dong Ha Bridge on Easter Sunday, 1972. At the time, he was a young captain of Marines. Capt. Ripley climbed under the bridge, in full view of the North Vietnamese and under heavy fire. Despite the danger, he carefully placed explosives, swinging arm-over-arm, like a trapeze artist. For this, he was awarded the Navy Cross.

There is a diorama of “Ripley at the Bridge” at the Naval Academy. Col. Ripley was a member of the Class of 1962.

Here is how I met Col. Ripley: In the spring of 2001 our son, Andrew, a midshipman in his third year at the Naval Academy, phoned home. He asked, Mom, do you mind if I don’t come home this summer?

Why? I asked.

Andrew explained that he had a chance to do a history internship at the Marine Corps History Division, but he also had signed up for summer training at Quantico with the Marine Corps, as well as a language institute in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The only way to squeeze in all these programs would be to not come home and to be one week late returning to the Academy.

Go for it, I said.

All was not lost. Andrew stopped off in California en route from Mexico to Washington, D.C., where he began his history internship with the director of the USMC History Division, the legendary Col. John Ripley.

Col. Ripley took care of the late return to the Academy with something called a “chit.” He also suggested research into Andrew’s father’s war record. This involved a bunch of dusty, uncatalogued boxes of faded Force Recon patrol reports.

A few days before Sep. 11, we visited the Academy. To my husband’s surprise, Andrew presented him with photocopies of those long-forgotten events. We also toured the small museum, which was then located in Washington, D.C. (Today, there is a larger museum at Quantico.)

I was introduced to Col. Ripley. He was a gracious host. Had a sense of humor. He was particularly nice to my husband. That’s how these Marines are. Unbeknown to us, he was also quite ill. His liver had been nearly destroyed by a rare form of hepatitis contracted in Vietnam. Within the year, Col. Ripley would receive last rites and await death, until an eleventh hour liver transplant would grant a reprieve.

And then, unexpectedly, Col. Ripley and our son became fellow travelers. The war hero would exhibit grace in the face of a hidden enemy. The athletic, healthy-as-a-horse midshipman would face unexpected challenges. And this is where Col. Ripley gave the greatest gift of all. He set an example of courage. In doing so, he made courage possible for others.

You see, we each rely on others. If one person complains, others will unconsciously begin to complain. But when we are surrounded by examples of bravery, we begin to learn that personal courage is possible.

The hope of courage and the courage of hope. This was Col. Ripley’s gift to our son.

So here we are, seven years later. The Force Recon reports are in a notebook on the shelf. Andrew served two years as a young second lieutenant before the cancer took him. And then, Col. Ripley lived out his days, until he died in his sleep last weekend at the age of 69.

A Marine.

ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. E-mail her at

La Canada Valley Sun (10-6-08)

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