God before country
By Debbie Thurman
Sunday April 4, 2010
The holiest day for all of Christendom is here. We celebrate the Passion of Christ, the suffering servant, but also King of kings and Lord of lords.
Were he still among us, one warrior-servant whose deeply abiding faith and military prowess helped shape him into a legend — a latter-day knight — would be solemnly worshiping. He also likely would be recalling another Easter Sunday, 38 years ago at almost precisely this time of year, in a quaint but war-ravaged South Vietnamese village called Dong Ha.
In 1972, Marine then-Capt. John Ripley was in South Vietnam for the third time as one of the last American military advisers. His first two combat tours were as a rifle company commander. He was already the stuff of legend.
Ripley’s duty this time was to shadow his South Vietnamese Marine brothers, enduring hardship and risking death with them as they bravely stood against Communist forces approaching from the north. The Easter Offensive became their shared fate.
As Easter dawned on April 2 that year, Ripley, Maj. Le Ba Binh and the roughly 200 men of the elite 3rd Vietnamese Marine Corps Battalion had a clear imperative: “Hold and die” defending the southern banks of the Cua Viet River. But first, they had to blow a superstructure bridge that had been built five years earlier by U.S. Navy Seabees for American forces. Two North Vietnamese Army divisions — 20,000 to 30,000 men, reinforced by some 200 Soviet tanks — were moving south toward Dong Ha. They had to be prevented from crossing the near-indestructible bridge, the only place to move their heavy armament.
It was a daunting mission, and one that only a man like Ripley, who had trained with the world’s most elite forces, could possibly pull off. He knew the odds of survival were ludicrous. Ripley would later say he was forced to “stop being cluttered by the feeling that [he was going to survive].”
The amazing story of an already exhausted Ripley’s miraculous hand-walk underneath the Dong Ha bridge, expertly planting charges amid a continual hail of NVA small arms and artillery fire, and his rhythmic prayer-chant of “Jesus, Mary, get me there!” has been retold many times. It resurged in the wake of this hero’s untimely death in late October 2008.
Nowhere are this and other Ripley stories — for instance, his equally miraculous liver transplant, allowing him to cheat death for another decade — told with more poignancy than in Norman Fulkerson’s recent book “An American Knight: The Life of Colonel John W. Ripley, USMC.” Fulkerson and Ripley shared a staunch Catholic faith, a deep respect for tradition and loyalty and a love of history.
“An American Knight” revisits Ripley’s Catholic upbringing in mostly Protestant Radford and traces his life’s arc through his U.S. Naval Academy days and amazing Marine Corps career, anchored by his devotion to his beloved wife, Moline (she passed away last year), and their four children, two of whom also served as Marine officers. The entire book is a sublime read.
I wish John Ripley could have known during his life how God amazingly touched mine years after our brief sojourn together in the 2nd Marine Division, or how both he and the Christ we both worshiped inspired me to take unpopular stands in a politically correct world run amuck.
There are two kinds of freedom in this world. The first is bought with the blood of selfless warriors who have stood against tyranny and evil in every age. The other freedom finds its sublime expression in the sacrificial atonement of the one who was fully God and fully man. His blood also flowed freely, but his death was short-lived. And thereon hangs the redemption of mankind.
Those who bear our savior’s name know it is he who commissions the modern warrior to carry into battle his sword of truth that pierces “as far as the division of soul and spirit” (Hebrews 4:12 ). The Marine Corps places God before country, as it should. Ripley was God’s man, above all.
Kudos to Fulkerson for giving the world this wonderful book. My copy bears Ripley’s famous, dual-meaning injunction in the author’s kind inscription to me: “Press the attack!”
I will. Semper Fi, Colonel.
Thurman, a Marine veteran, is a writer living in Monroe