Matt Rippenkroeger sat down next to the woman in the red-and-green sweater, not yet knowing that she would make his day, his week, his month.
Rippenkroeger was not in a particularly good mood. His black Jeep Grand Cherokee had rolled over a nail, and the left rear tire was leaking air. He pulled into the Jensen Tire & Auto near 108th and Fort, explained the problem to the mechanic and sank into a waiting room chair.
That's when he noticed the woman. She was maybe around 60. She wore an expensive-looking Christmas sweater. She looked regal. And she was looking at him.
“Is that your dog?” she asked.
“Yes, ma'am,” Rippenkroeger answered.
His name is Ruckus, he's a Belgian Malinois, and he's my service dog.
The woman took in that last line and glanced at Rippenkroeger's close-cropped hair.
“You in the military?” she asked.
“Yes, ma'am,” he said again.
Matt Rippenkroeger is a first lieutenant in the Nebraska National Guard. He joined the military nine months before Sept. 11, 2001. In 2010, he volunteered for a deployment to Afghanistan.
He and his best friend, Ben, flew to southeastern Afghanistan, to Paktika province, which borders Pakistan. Paktika is the province where Pat Tillman died. It's a province where the Haqqani Network — Afghanistan's most fearsome insurgent group — regularly stages attacks on U.S. service members and plants roadside bombs, known in the military as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Lt. Rippenkroeger's job in Paktika? Investigate the IEDs. He didn't work from an office inside an American military base. Nope. He investigated by going to where an IED had been discovered and watching as the explosive ordnance disposal team — the explosive experts made famous by the movie “The Hurt Locker”— disarmed the bomb. He investigated by taking that disarmed bomb and immediately starting detective work on it, trying to figure out who built it and who planted it. It was a fascinating job, he says, and a fulfilling one, too.
And then one day Lt. Rippenkroeger and his friend Ben were on an investigation, standing by their vehicle, watching the explosive experts disarm a bomb.
Something went wrong.
The blast knocked Lt. Rippenkroeger to the ground. It knocked many of the teeth out of his mouth. It cracked several of his ribs. It injured Ben's leg.
They considered themselves lucky — other soldiers at the site were not so lucky. But when Lt. Rippenkroeger came home, his left leg started to hurt. When he ran, his entire left side felt weak and numb. He felt anxious. He had nightmares.
Doctors gave him a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, and licensed Ruckus as a service dog.
He didn't tell the regal-looking woman at Jensen Tire much of this, just answered her questions as she asked them. They fell into a conversation about the weather, about how they hate Omaha's cold winters. Then they talked about Texas. Lt. Rippenkroeger now lives part time in Dallas, where he works in sales for Siemens, the electronics and electrical engineering company.
The 31-year-old comes to Omaha to serve weekends in the Nebraska National Guard; he's a Guard helicopter pilot now. The woman has a Texas connection, too: Her son graduated from the University of Texas.
Lt. Rippenkroeger doesn't remember the woman's son's name. He doesn't even know the woman's name, because this was just a pleasant conversation to pass the time until his tire was patched, nothing more or less.
And then the mechanic came out and gave the bad news: A patch isn't possible. You need a whole new tire.
The Nebraska Guardsman heard the news and shook his head sadly. It's Christmastime, after all, and he needed that money to buy presents for his wife, Hillary, and his 8-year-old son, Caleb.
He stood to pay, and the regal-looking woman whose name he doesn't know stood up, too.
I'm getting this, she said.
No, you aren't, he said.
Don't argue with me, she said.
Thank you, he said. No, thank you, she said.
“Then I gave her a big ol' hug,” Lt. Rippenkroeger says.
He went home to his house in northwest Omaha, and he's been thinking about that regal-looking woman for weeks. It isn't the money, the maybe $150 she spent on him. She clearly had money.
It isn't the conversation they had, or even the bear-hug he gave her.
No, what stuck with Lt. Rippenkroeger — why he called the newspaper and told me this story last week — is how the regal-looking woman made him feel.
There are so many important stories from the war in Afghanistan, he thinks. The successes and the failures. The dead and wounded. Those who come home physically and psychologically damaged. A suicide epidemic in the American military.
This is a small story, a tiny story even, but this is an important story, too.
It's a story about a regal-looking woman in a red-and-green sweater helping him out when he needed it. It's about that anonymous woman helping him, supporting him, in ways she can't possibly understand.
“You can say it's a tire, but it means so much more than that to me,” he says. “I don't know how to explain it, but it's just one of those things that didn't go unnoticed, not by me.
“It's like ... she was kind of an angel. My angel.”