The University of Wisconsin-Madison churned with turmoil in the late 1960s as students protested the Vietnam War.
Holding signs “Get out of Vietnam” and “Bring our troops home” activists swarmed the Madison campus.
And Harry Ripp saw it all.
“I witnessed the riots, the police banging on the heads of protestors, going to class with police bayonets drawn and being evacuated from class because of the tear gas,” Ripp remembers.
Ripp, a farm boy from Ashton Wisconsin, was the first of his family to go to college, so he had his eye on a degree. But with the war going on, he knew eventually where he would end up.
“I wasn’t a protestor, and being a conscientious objector wasn’t for me, I graduated knowing the military would be next,” Ripp said, remembering the draft notice that came in the mail in the summer of 1969.
Nine months after he graduated, the 22-year-old was in Vietnam in the U.S. Army artillery protecting the boots-on-the-ground soldiers.
Ripp had put all those memories behind him until just recently when the past seemed just too important to keep in a box.
Badger Honor Flight
Weeks before Ripp was set to board the Badger Honor Flight on Oct. 5, his three kids encouraged him to tell them about his Vietnam War experience.
On Easter Sunday 1970, Ripp was assigned to the A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 40th Artillery of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. Armed with 105 Howitzer, the mobile unit moved in and out of position in the III Corp Tactical Zone near Saigon.
“Wherever they wanted us, we would go, we were moving constantly,” Ripp recalled.
Troops would come on the highway or land by helicopter in a spot cleared out of the jungle.
Setting up position, he said the first task was filling up sandbags. “If there was anything that I became an expert on in Vietnam—it was filling sandbags,” Ripp remembered with a laugh.
He would move to another unit, the 3rd Battalion, 13th Artillery, 25th Division infantry and then the Headquarter 1st Battalion, 30th Artillery 1st Calvary Division. Ripp considered himself lucky to get the assignment, but he admits it sometimes shook his nerves.
“You would get sacred—scared of the unknown, scared of the war, scared of being a target,” Ripp remembered.
He was fire direction control, taking calls from grunts under attack and then using his slide rule and map to bring artillery support to the unit.
Ripp didn’t often connect with many of his fellow soldiers because they moved around a lot but he remembered Victor Charlie—a dog he adopted that slept next to him in his hootch.
Ripp was trained to do his duty, shooting artillery ammunition on top of the enemy.
“My job was to support and protect our soldiers in the field and that is what I did, but when I think about it now, I know that some mother lost her son because of me,” Ripp said.
Ripp served a little over a year in Vietnam before being discharged on a day he will always remember—April Fool’s Day 1971.
He went back to his family and his fiancée Ann, intent on moving on with his life.
“As she was putting the finishing touches on the wedding, I was hustling the streets so when our wedding day came I could tell people I was working,” Ripp said of his career that included more than 38 years at First Wisconsin/Firstar/US Bank in management and administration.
It’s in God’s hands now
Ripp signed up to go on the Badger Honor Flight last March wanting to experience a homecoming like he saw other veterans get when he they came back to the Dane County airport.
“Maybe it’s a selfish feeling but I wanted to have that welcome,” Ripp said. “Especially since I was a Vietnam Veteran and we didn’t get that recognition when we got back.”
Ripp expected to wait at least a couple of years to get a seat on the Badger Honor Flight but he was fast-tracked for the trip after he was diagnosed this summer with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, a rare form of blood cancer.
Ripp is undergoing chemo treatments and having blood transfusions to fight the cancer, but he said the doctors can’t give him any guarantees.
For a man who has taken care of health all through his life—going to the gym and putting on thousands of miles on his bike—the diagnosis was a surprise for him, with no leukemia in his family. He is now even more focused on his health.
“There is a chance that this treatment will work, but God will be the decider,” he said.
Ripp contacted Badger Honor Flight organizers shortly after he was diagnosed and talked to them about their TLC program for veterans who are facing a life-threatening illness. He was motivated e to make the trip.
“I didn’t want to wait for years and never make it or wait too long that I was struggling on the trip,” Ripp says.
Ripp spoke with the Badger Honor Flight Medical Team and knew that he would be in good care with a team of doctors and nurses on the trip.
“They were really tuned into my medical condition even before I stepped onto the flight and the medical team took phenomenal care of me. I strongly encourage any veteran facing health issues to consider going on the honor flight,” Ripp said.
Ripp went on the Oct. 5 Badger Honor Flight with his son Kevin, who teased his dad that he never stopped talking on the trip.
“The Badger Honor Flight really wound me up—- you get to the airport at 4:30 a.m. and all the people there gets your adrenaline going,” Ripp remembers. “You are greeted with so much enthusiasm wherever you go and all the volunteers are there to make sure you have a wonderful day. It was a phenomenal experience.”
After a full day of visiting the war memorials, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Ripp came home to thousands of people—including his wife Ann, and his two other children, Jeff and Coreen— cheering him when he landed at the Dane County Regional Airport.
Ripp said he stayed up until midnight reading all the letters from his mail call—friends, family and fellow soldiers who wrote out heartfelt messages.
“It was very touching and emotional to have all those people take the time to do that for me,” Ripp said.
To honor others
Ripp is retired now and in between serving on community boards and local organizations, he is intent on beating his grandsons at Pokémon TCG—scoping out the local Target store for the super-powerful cards.
The Sun Prairie resident is also active in the Sun Prairie VFW Post 9362 working on special projects and serving as the chaplain.
He visits veterans who are ill, in assisted living facilities. He also leads the prayers at post meetings.
“I make sure that when I say the prayer everyone can hear it,” said Ripp, a former seminary student.
Ripp’s main focus when he retired in 2011 was to join the VFW and be part of the honor guard. Ripp has helped give more than 100 veterans their final military honor with a rifle salute, taps, presenting of the US flag to survivors, prayer and the playing of taps.
To him it is a privilege to part of the ceremony.
“It is the last fitting honor to thank these veterans for their service,” Ripp said.