ST. LOUIS – A southwestern Illinois native was killed with six other Marines in an explosion during a Nevada training exercise he privately questioned because was just two months from coming home, his father said Wednesday.
Aaron Ripperda was eager to go back to college and “get on with his life,” Kent Ripperda told The Associated Press from his home in Marine, Ill.
His 26-year-old son died Monday night when a mortar shell blew up in its firing tube at the sprawling Hawthorne Army Depot, sending shrapnel flying into the young Marine and other troops as they trained. Eight others were injured.
Aaron Ripperda, formerly of Highland just east of St. Louis, had questioned the value of such training during a telephone conversation just days earlier, his father said.
“He wasn’t complaining. But as a good Marine, he did it,” the elder Ripperda, 52, told the AP.
Joining the Marines never had been Aaron Ripperda’s first choice after his 2005 graduation from Highland High School, his father said. Ripperda did some college work in Chicago before graduating from a St. Louis culinary school, only to find the job market in that field flat.
“He told us he always felt like he had a calling to join the Marines,” said Kent Ripperda, who at the time gently tried to dissuade his son from entering that branch, fearing for the young man’s safety at a time when U.S. casualties were mounting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I guess maybe it was a prestige thing” that propelled him into joining the Marines for five years, the father said, adding that through it all he was proud of his son’s decision to still serve his country. “He was an adult, and it was his choice.”
Aaron Ripperda also saw the military as a way to see the world. He did, ultimately visiting 13 countries.
Yet come the end of May, Ripperda had no plans to re-enlist and was looking forward to returning home and attending Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville this fall, his father said.
It wasn’t to be.
Kent Ripperda said he was online at work Tuesday, the morning after the explosion, when he saw a news account of a Nevada blast that killed seven Marines. The location — Hawthorne — and the name of the affected platoon deepened the father’s interest, given their similarities to his son’s location and group.
Moments later, the father called his ex-wife — Aaron Ripperda’s mother — in Santa Rosa, Calif., where she now lives. He asked if she had heard about the explosion and, if so, whether she had new details.
During that call, Kent Ripperda said, Marines arrived on the mother’s doorstep to tell her the grim news.
“That’s when we knew it was not a good sign,” the father said.
Aaron Ripperda’s former educators at the 1,000-student Highland High remembered the late Marine Wednesday as a polite kid who blended seamlessly between cliques. He took part in the school’s Renaissance-themed madrigal activities and for a time played football and ran track.
“He was a very nice young man, and because he was such a positive young man he just had a wonderful attitude and outlook. A can-do kid,” said Karen Gauen, the high school’s assistant principal who taught English during Ripperda’s time there.
Though she never recalled Ripperda openly talking about joining the military, she said “he definitely had the discipline for it.”
“He would be the type of person you’d want fighting for the country,” Gauen said. “He was just an intelligent, brave young man who had a lot to offer. It seems sometimes we lose our best and brightest, and it’s very depressing.”
Doug Bradley, who once taught Ripperda during a tech lab, also coached him in junior high track, where Ripperda ran the opening leg of a half-mile relay team that ultimately qualified for state.
“He was not necessarily the spectacular personality” that stood out in the crowd, Bradley said. “But he got along with every social group in school, and that’s a rare, special kid.”
Learning of Ripperda’s death, Bradley said, “is a punch to the gut.”
Kent Ripperda said his son “enjoyed life to its fullest.”
“I do feel like he did a lot of living in his 26 years,” the father said. “I wish it could have been so much longer. But he enjoyed every minute of life. He really did.”