Among the mourners, retired Army Lt. Col. Joe Rippetoe stood flexing and unflexing his right arm, stiffened from the biting cold and the wear and tear of 28 years in the military.
When honor guard soldiers pulled his son's flag-covered coffin from the caisson, Rippetoe was ready. He slowly bent his right arm in a final salute to his only son, the 27-year-old Army captain who died with two other U.S. soldiers in a car bomb attack in Iraq on April 3.
Yesterday, Capt. Russell B. Rippetoe became the first combat casualty from the Iraq war to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, according to cemetery officials.
As a bitter wind spun cherry blossoms from the trees, a black caisson drawn by six gray Shire horses bore the young soldier's coffin to the grave. The U.S. Army Band marched through the mud to a stirring "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment "Old Guard" honor guard from nearby Fort Myer fired three volleys of ceremonial rifle shots as a tribute.
"For 27 years, I was blessed with a person that had a big, big heart," Rippetoe said after the ceremony. "I can't reach out and touch him, but I can talk to him and I see him . . . the little indentations on the side of his mouth when he smiles? It melts your heart."
In his brief eulogy, Army Chaplain James May remembered Rippetoe as a gifted leader who embraced his Army career in the elite 75th Ranger Regiment with zeal.
"All the things he did were done to the fullest," May said. "Russell was a man who loved his troops. And they loved him."
Rippetoe was raised in Arvada, Colo., a suburb of Denver, but his parents had just moved to Gaithersburg on March 29 so Rita Rippetoe could take a new position at the Justice Department.
The first thing they saw when they walked up the sidewalk to their new home was a bouquet of lilies sent by their son. He signed the card: "Relax Ma, I'll see you soon." They'd barely unloaded their moving boxes when they learned of his death.
Rippetoe said his son was also a spiritual person -- a "man of faith" as May put it -- who took a Bible with him when he was deployed to Iraq. Yesterday, May read from the Scripture Rippetoe had engraved on the back of his dog tags from the Book of Joshua.
"Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee . . "
Rippetoe became interested in joining the Army when he was a criminal justice major at Metropolitan State College of Denver in the late 1990s, friends said. He was also inspired by his father, now 66, who is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, also trained as a Ranger, who did two combat tours in Vietnam.
In 1999, Rippetoe earned his Army commission and was later assigned to Company A, 3rd Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment in Fort Benning, Ga. He served in Afghanistan from October 2001 to January 2002 before he was deployed to Iraq.
"He loved being a Ranger," said Capt. Logan Stanton, a friend who trained with Rippetoe and was at the funeral yesterday. Rippetoe was a fire support officer, he said, which meant that he was with the infantry and called in airstrikes during battle. "It was a very big job," Stanton said.
On April 3, Rippetoe was manning a coalition checkpoint near Hadithah Dam in northwestern Iraq when a car approached carrying Iraqi civilians. A pregnant woman got out and ran screaming from the car. Then, the vehicle exploded. Rippetoe and two others from his regiment were killed.
"The woman was saying, 'I'm hungry, I need food and water,' and Rusty walked over to take charge, and he was caught in the blast," Joe Rippetoe said.
Army Spec. Chad Thibodeau was wounded in the attack and left his bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to attend the funeral.
"He was a good friend of mine. We'll all miss him," Thibodeau said after the service. He did not want to discuss the attack.
As the service drew to a close, a dozen members of the elite Rangers, wearing their trademark khaki berets and "dress green" uniforms, filed past the casket and a framed collage of pictures of their comrade. There was a black-and-white photo of Russell Rippetoe as a baby as well as a snapshot of the solid young man he became, wearing fatigues and looking fiercely into the camera.
The Army Rangers presented the young man's posthumously awarded combat medals -- two Bronze Stars for valor, a Purple Heart and a Meritorious Service Medal -- as well as the flag from the coffin to his stricken parents.
Rippetoe and his wife invited all the mourners to their new home in the Montgomery Village section of Gaithersburg after the funeral. He said that his new neighbors have been wonderful to them, bringing plates of food and offering to help unpack.
"When they heard about Rusty, the flags went up," he said.
But some gifts are not yet welcome. The Army wants to return Rippetoe's dog tags, the ones with Scripture engraved on the back. Rippetoe said they should wait.
"I told 'em my wife and I aren't ready to receive those yet," he said.