As he was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery yesterday, Spec. Stanley Lapinski was remembered as a man who died fighting for his country and beliefs he was never afraid to defend.
Lapinski, of Las Vegas, joined the Army after struggling for years to find the right career to meld his extensive learning and personal convictions. He spent several years selling car stereos at a Circuit City, talked about going to graduate school and later trained to become a police officer. But it was only after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that he found the purpose he had been seeking.
"He was concerned the war was going to be over when he got there," said Jorge Ralat, 39, a friend and a Las Vegas police officer.
Lapinski, 35, died June 11 in Baghdad when a bomb detonated near his military vehicle.
Hewas born in Pittsburgh and moved around the country as a child, as his father, Stanley, followed jobs with AT&T and pursued a career as a golf instructor. The family settled in Florida, where Lapinski finished high school. He headed to Merrimack College in Massachusetts on a football scholarship; he transferred when the school dropped the sport. He bounced around schools for a few years before graduating from the University of South Florida with a degree in psychology.
Despite his credentials, he didn't seek a position in Army intelligence. He turned down desk jobs and, once he was in Iraq, refused what might have been safer assignments, friends said.
"He felt that was not the reason why he had joined," said Rebecca Zisch, 32, his longtime love, whom he was planning to visit in Las Vegas during his leave this summer. His father and mother, Gaye, were to join them.
Lapinski, who had been in Iraq since January, was assigned to the Army's 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, from Fort Stewart, Ga. He was serving as the gunner on a Humvee when he was killed. He was posthumously promoted to specialist and awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Zisch, a commentator at KNPR Radio in Las Vegas, wrote a remembrance of Lapinski that was played yesterday on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."
"There was this immediate thing between us," she said, in an interview this week, describing how the couple met in a record store in 1999, where they bonded over a mutual love of music.
"He and I were kind of kindred spirits figuring out what we were going to do when we grew up," she said. "He never felt he was using the unique talents he was given in life."
In Las Vegas, Lapinski went to movies almost weekly, listened to just about every type of music and read ravenously, especially historical nonfiction, friends said. He could talk about ancient war heroes, literature or politics with the authority of a college professor, riveting an audience of his friends while listening to punk music and sipping Jack Daniels.
"The way he held himself, you always knew he was being honest and sure and strong about what he was saying," Zisch said.
Brent Engle, 44, was among those who enjoyed Lapinski's late-night philosophical discussions. But it was several years ago, when Engle went to San Francisco for eye surgery, that he discovered just what kind of friend Lapinski was.
Engle was recuperating slowly and feeling miserable when his buddy drove up from Las Vegas to cheer him up for several days.
"It made a world of difference that he did that," said Engle, who ultimately lost vision in the eye. "He was that kind of a person."
Lapinski was the 153rd person killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom to be buried at Arlington Cemetery.