`Semper Fidelis' saves a life

Legend: Decades after his heroics in Vietnam, relatives and servicemen mobilize to help a dying vet.

August 16, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - John Ripley's worthless liver had left his skin a sickly yellow. Toxic fluids were collecting in his system, causing his lean frame to bloat: Once 175 pounds, he now weighed 425. His kidneys were failing. An incision glared from his abdomen, closed with staples in case surgeons had to rip it open fast. Eighteen IV lines fed into his unconscious body.

One of the Marine Corps' greatest living heroes was dying.

In the intensive care unit at Georgetown University Medical Center, a son of the retired colonel, Tom Ripley, sat vigil. It was 7 a.m. when the phone rang: A donor liver had been found, but his father might not live long enough to get it.

That's when the Ripleys understood that the delivery of the liver, from a 16-year-old gunshot victim in Philadelphia to the dying veteran in Washington, would take too long if left in the hospital's hands. Their only thought: Call in the Marines.

Over the next hours on that day last month, saving John Ripley's life became a military mission. It would involve the leader of the Marine Corps and helicopters from the president's fleet. Support teams would come from police in two cities, a platoon of current and former Marines, the president of Georgetown University and even a crew of construction workers.

"Sir, this is my dad's last chance," Tom Ripley said in a call to the Marine commandant's office. "I'm measuring my father's life in hours, not days."

The extraordinary efforts to save the 63-year-old Ripley, recovering from transplant surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, shows how far the Corps will go to protect one of its own.

Marines will say they'd do this for any fallen comrade. But Ripley is no ordinary Marine. In a messy war with few widely recognized heroes, he is a legend. And at his moment of need, the Corps treated him like one.

"Colonel Ripley's story is part of our folklore - everybody is moved by it," said Lt. Col. Ward Scott, who helped organize the organ delivery from his post at the Marine Corps Historical Center in Washington, which Ripley has directed for the past three years. "It mattered that it was Colonel Ripley who was in trouble."

A heroic effort

On Easter Sunday 1972, Col. John Walter Ripley - swinging arm over arm to attach explosives to the span while dangling beneath it - almost single-handedly destroyed a bridge near the South Vietnamese city of Dong Ha. The action, which took place under heavy fire over several hours as he ran back and forth to shore for materials, is thought to have thwarted the onslaught of 20,000 enemy troops.

His tale is required reading for every Naval Academy plebe. In Memorial Hall, Ripley, a 1962 academy graduate, is the only Marine featured from the Vietnam War: A diorama shows him clinging to the grid work of the bridge at Dong Ha.

Ripley received the Navy Cross, the second-highest award a Marine can receive for combat. That decoration is surpassed only by the Congressional Medal of Honor, which, many in the Marine Corps vigorously argue, Ripley deserves.

But on this July morning, three decades after surviving combat wounds, Ripley was facing death from a transportation problem. His doctors tried four civilian organ transportation agencies and could not immediately be guaranteed a helicopter by any of them.

The Ripleys say they were told that a civilian helicopter would not be available for at least six hours. Driving to Philadelphia was not an option because doctors worried that any traffic delays would ruin the organ.

Helicopter mission

Tom Ripley saw only one solution. From his father's hospital room, he called the office of the Marine Corps commandant, James L. Jones, and secured the use of a CH-46 helicopter, which is part of the presidential Marine One fleet.

The plan: The chopper would ferry the transplant team to the University of Pennsylvania hospital to remove the donor liver and then transport the doctors back to Washington.

Marine lawyers instantly approved the use of military materiel for Ripley, including nearly three hours on a helicopter that costs up to $6,000 an hour to operate. The commandant considered this an official lifesaving mission for a retired Marine still valuable to the Corps as a living symbol of pride.

Action was swift. The doctors rushed to Anacostia Naval Air Station, where the helicopter was waiting, rotors spinning. The chopper took off before the surgeons were even strapped in. By about 10 a.m., just three hours after learning that a new liver would be available in Philadelphia, the transplant team was swooping into that city. On the landing pad, an ambulance and a Philadelphia Highway Patrol car, both summoned by the Marines, were waiting. The motorcade took off, sirens blaring.

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