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Posted on Apr 2, 2013 Print this Article

The Commandant, the Colonel, and "Making Marines"

Published by National Review Online, November 4, 2008

When a great man dies, someone is sure to say, "They just don't make them like him anymore." This is true of Gen. Robert H. Barrow, the 27th Commandant of the Marine Corps, who passed away quietly at his home in St. Francisville, Louisiana, last Thursday at age 89. Retired Marine Col. John W. Ripley was another great man who died late last week, in his Annapolis, Maryland, home at the age of 69.

General Barrow was widely respected as the finest man to hold the rank of Commandant, and Marines and Naval Academy graduates everywhere revered Colonel Ripley because of his legendary achievements in Vietnam and the many missions that he accomplished in his life after retirement.  We will not see the like of these two heroes again.  Remembering both of them as friends, it occurs to me that they worked in different ways to "make Marines," who are following their example today.

In a eulogy prepared for General Barrow's funeral yesterday, former Marine Commandant Gen. Carl E. Mundy, Jr., described the exemplary personal and professional life of his friend and colleague. Robert Barrow consistently and repeatedly distinguished himself as a combat leader in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

In 1950, then-Capt. Bob Barrow fought in the assault wave at Inchon, the lead company in the attack to liberate Seoul, Korea Their difficult mission was to seize commanding high ground to enable the Marine First Division's epic "attack to the rear" in the 25-degrees-below-zero temperatures around the Chosin Reservoir.  Survivors of that grueling struggle still speak with awe about the leadership of their young company commander, Robert Barrow. He inspired the same respect in Vietnam, where he earned a reputation as the finest regimental commander in that war.

But Barrow's favorite assignment, for which he would have sacrificed his general's stars if the choice had been his, was as commander of Marine recruit training program at Parris Island, South Carolina. Said General Mundy:

From his earliest days in the Corps, he gained the firm, and oft articulated belief that it is people who make the difference. Tanks, ships, airplanes and rifles are all important tools; but without the right people, they're useless. Even numbers didn't count with him. A favorite saying was, "In battle, It's not how many show up ...it's who they are."

He believed that fairly ordinary young Americans -properly molded by the Corps Into Marines -are different, and in times of trial, make the difference. He put a sign over  the entrance to Parris Island that stated, simply: "Where the Difference Begins."

[Parris Island] was his favorite post, and appropriately, its headquarters today is named for him: 'Barrow Hall". He became Commandant of theCorps in 1979, and would continue until retirement four years later to shape his Corps, and to perpetuate the unique culture and character that comes with being a Marine.

I met General Barrow in July 1991, when the Senate Armed Services Committee invited us to testify on the issue of women in combat. We shared a panel with the Chairman of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS), who spoke for the other side. I remember how SASC members John Warner (R-Va.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) listened to General Barrow with utmost respect on that day. He was a tall and handsome Southern gentleman in the mold of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and a delight to speak to as a friend for many years since.

Col. John Ripley, who was a generation younger, also exemplified the unique culture of the Marine Corps in every assignment that he took on. Maj. W. Thomas Smith, USMC (Ret.), vividly described what happened when young Ripley and his small band were ordered to "hold and die" in the face of the North Vietnamese Army's Easter Offensive in April 1972. Wrote Smith:

Dying would be easy. But the only way to hold was to blow the bridge spanning the Dong Ha River. And, as Ripley said, he was "the Marine there to do ft.' Then a 33-year­old captain, Ripley accomplished his task by dangling from the bridge's I-beams, climbing along the length of the bridge hand-over-hand, his body weighted down with explosives, the enemy shooting at him, desperately trying to kill the lone Marine hanging beneath the bridge.

In a June 2008 interview for Marine Corps Times, Ripley said, "I had to swing like a trapeze artist in a circus and leap over the other I-beam...Iwould work myself into the steel. I used my teeth to crimp the detonator and thus pinch it into place on the fuse. I crimped it with my teeth while the detonator was halfway down my throat."

Ripley set the charges and moved back to the friendly side ofthe river, all the while under heavy fire. When the timed-fuses detonated, Ripley -running for his life on the road leading away from the bridge -was literally blown through the air by the massive shockwave he had engineered. The next thing he remembered, he was lying on his back as huge pieces of the bridge were hurtling and cartwheeling across the sky above him.

Someday a feature film recreating this real-life Jack Bauer scene will come to a movie theater near you. In the meantime, Major Smith is not the only one who believes that the Navy Cross Ripley earned that day should have been -and should be -upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

I met Colonel Ripley in 1992 when he testified before the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, on which I served. A humble man, Ripley did not tell the commission about his experiences at that bridge in 1972. I learned later that retired Marine Col. John Grider Miller memorialized Ripley's heroism in a book titled The Bridge at Dong Ha. All midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy learn lessons from a diorama titled "Ripley at the Bridge" that is displayed at Memorial Hall.

Colonel Ripley inspired young people as a professor of naval science at the Virginia Military Institute, where he was credited with building the largest NROTC program in the nation. After retirement in 1992, he became president of Southern Virginia College at Buena Vista, Virginia, then an all-women school. He also served as president of Hargrave Military Academy at Chatham, Virginia, and later as director of the Marine History and Museums Division.

InMarch 1993 I had the great honor of going into "combat" with John Ripley. We served with forensic team captain William F. Buckley Jr. and author David Horowitz in a two-hour PBS "Firing Line" debate. Opposing us were Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), ACLU attorney Ira Glasser, Air Force veteran Heather Wilson, and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught. The challenging debate format required each participant to question and be questioned by members of the opposition team.

One of the most memorable moments was John Ripley's joust with General Vaught. Previously she had stated that even pregnant women, depending on the month, should be allowed to serve in combat. Ripley asked, "Would you please tell us, [General Vaught], what month is it okay for pregnant women to fight, to be in combat?"

After some hesitation, General Vaught stood by her statement, insisting that "There are women who are capable of doing many things up to a very late period in their pregnancy."  At that point, Colonel Ripley brought down the house with "Well, that's wonderful. I'm sure the personnel people will be happy to know they are getting two for one."

Col. John Ripley was a living role model so important to the Corps that in the summer of 2002, then­ Commandant Gen. Jim Jones moved heaven, earth, Marine helicopters and the Washington, D.C. police force to rush a liver for transplant that saved Ripley's life when it arrived just in time.

He served his country again as a member of the 2003 panel that reviewed allegations of sexual misconduct at the U.S. Air Force Academy.  Meetings of that commission were not easy; he was still recovering from the combat-related illness that had almost taken his life. Speaking later that year at a conference of the Center for Military Readiness, Ripley showed great compassion for military women experiencing sexual abuse, as well as concern for the integrity of due process in such matters.

The news of John Ripley's death, coming so soon after the loss of Gen. Robert H. Barrow, reminds us of how difficult and important it is to "make men" like them.  For the sake of our military, somehow the nation needs to find a way to inspire respected leaders who will continue to emulate the example of these faithful Marines for generations to come.

Posted on Apr 2, 2013 Print this Article