MARINE — Aaron J. Ripperda, 26, was just a few weeks from getting out of the Marines.
And he was making plans. He enrolled in Southern Illinois University Edwardsville for the fall semester, planning to major in business.
He asked his father to help him fix up a sailboat that he was planning to buy so he could sail on Carlyle Lake during the weekends.
"I was so looking forward to that," said Kent Ripperda, Aaron's father.
A blast killed seven Marines, including Ripperda, on Monday during a live-fire training exercise in Nevada. Eight others were injured in the accident.
Kent Ripperda heard about the explosion Tuesday. He talked to his only son the week before and he told him that he was going to Hawthorne Army Depot. Kent Ripperda called his ex-wife and Aaron's mother, Tina, in California and when he was on the phone, three Marine officers came to her door to deliver the news.
"They told me that there were Marines waiting at my house," Kent Ripperda said. "They told me to go home. That was a long drive."
He called his wife, Colleen, and asked her to meet him at home. He told her what had happened.
"I didn't believe it," Colleen Ripperda said. "Then when I got home, there were three Marine officers in the driveway and I couldn't deny it."
It seemed to defy the odds. Aaron Ripperda was home and only a few weeks from leaving the Marines. He already survived two deployments, one in Afghanistan and one to provide relief to earthquake-riddled Haiti.
But it was during a motor training exercise shortly before 10 p.m. at Hawthorne Army Depot, a sprawling complex of 2,915 structures spread across 147,236 acres about 140 miles southeast of Reno, where Ripperda died. It is the site of high desert training facilities for military units.
"The Marines were conducting live-fire and maneuver training at the Hawthorne Army Depot ... a (60mm) mortar round exploded in the mortar tube, causing the deaths of seven and injuring (eight) others. We don't know yet what caused this malfunction," Brig. Gen. Jim. Lukeman, 2nd Marine Division commanding general, said during a news conference Tuesday outside the main gate of the Camp Lejeune, N.C. headquarters to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force.
The cause of the incident is under investigation, but following the accident, the Pentagon suspended use of the 60 mm rounds and their firing until the investigation is completed.
The young Ripperda loved adventure and travel and picked up new hobbies. He played football, wrestled and ran track at Highland High School before he graduated in 2005. He was gregarious with lots of friends and had an ever-sunny disposition, his parents said.
"Aaron was a kind hearted, loving, all-around great guy. Anytime you're with Aaron you couldn't feel anything but happy. One of those guys that just being around made your day great. Most of my great memories are with Aaron. I truly considered Aaron a brother of mine. It was a great honor to have Aaron as a friend," said Aaron Blake, a native of Highland who is stationed with the Air Force in Bossier City, La.
On Wednesday, Ripperda's body was on its way to Dover, Del., his father said. There would be an investigation before the body was released to the family. A wake and funeral are planned in Ripperda's hometown of Highland.
But the burial will be at a cemetery near Carlyle Lake, near the water and the sailboats.
Daniel Kelley contributed to this story.