Editor’s Note: On Friday, we learned that Tripp Zanetis, a recent contributor to Just Security, was one of seven U.S. service members killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq. Last June, we published a piece by Tripp about why it’s in U.S. national security interests to enforce the norms of international humanitarian law and encourage Israel to end its 50-year occupation of the West Bank. At the time, Tripp had just graduated Stanford Law School, and we looked forward to working with him again. Today, we are so saddened by his death, but look back at his remarkable life in awe and appreciation.
When I’ve written for Just Security before, it has always been analysis or advocacy related to national security law or policy. Today, however, I sadly write for a different reason. Captain Christopher “Tripp” Zanetis, a friend and 2017 Stanford Law School (SLS) graduate, died in a helicopter crash near the Syrian border on Thursday while serving with the New York Air National Guard in Iraq. This news is tragic not only on a personal level but also for the SLS community and the country.
Tripp was a true and humble public servant. Before attending law school, he served in the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), which he was inspired to join after the September 11, 2001, attacks. In fact, even before joining FDNY, he volunteered until midnight at the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks while he was a student at New York University. “One of few civilians who went towards the towers that night, he made himself useful to medical and rescue personnel,” Professor Michelle Wilde Anderson of SLS wrote in her moving tribute for the SLS community. And later as a member of the New York Air National Guard’s 101st Rescue Squadron, he helped save nearly 100 lives in Afghanistan in 2012. I actually had not known about his Ground Zero experience, or the lives he saved in Afghanistan, until I read Professor Anderson’s tribute and news articles after his death. Indeed, Tripp was more focused on helping others than boasting of his own acts and accomplishments.
While navigating the rigorous academic environment of SLS, Tripp continued his military service, working with the California Air National Guard. And when he became a lawyer at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York last year, he resumed his service with FDNY as well as the New York Air National Guard.
Tripp was also a beloved, vibrant, and active member of the SLS community. He was a leader in the LGBT community at SLS, organizing the law school’s first annual OutLaw conference, among other achievements. And he won the National LGBT Bar Association’s Student Leadership Award in 2017. Always a tenacious advocate, he wrote when the Pentagon lifted its transgender ban in 2016 that the decision paid “tribute to the brave Americans whose desire to serve their country trumps ignorance and fear. Hopefully, today’s decision, as with past military policy changes, precedes a societal change in attitude towards the transgender community and a move towards greater equality for all Americans.” It’s also noteworthy that Tripp joined the military before the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was abandoned. According to Fares Akremi, one of my SLS classmates, Tripp “shared on many occasions how difficult it had been to pretend and how profound a relief it was when he was finally able to serve openly.”
For all three years he was in law school, he was involved in the annual SLS musical, a satirical show that always proves to be one of the most memorable events of the year. He produced it in 2016 and 2017, and as one of the stars in 2016, he gave a dazzling performance that left me in awe. Carson White, my classmate who worked closely with him as a fellow star and producer, fondly remembers his leadership and his creativity in crafting jokes for the script. “Plus, he danced in heels so much better than I could have,” she said of the role Tripp played in drag. Anybody in attendance that year will never forget his enthusiasm and talent.
I knew Tripp best for his indefatigable support and advocacy for veterans. During my first year at SLS, he was co-president of the Stanford Law Veterans Organization (SLVO). The transition from the military to law school can be challenging. But veterans arriving at SLS were fortunate to have Tripp’s unceasing willingness to provide advice and help in any way possible. He knew the answer to most questions, but when didn’t, he’d find out for you. And if a policy needed to change, he’d work for it. Ever the sharp, aspiring lawyer, he even found a way to ensure SLS veterans had the option of receiving some GI Bill funding during their summers.
Perhaps the most visible and lasting mark he left at SLS is a long-forgotten plaque honoring former SLS students who died while serving in World War II, which Tripp helped restore to prominence. The plaque had been lost in a storage closet after the law school moved to its current location in 1975. When a law school employee discovered it, Tripp and Jordan Ritenour, his SLVO co-president, approached SLS Dean Elizabeth Magill, and before long, it had a new, permanent place on the SLS campus. I still remember Tripp proudly attending and participating in the rededication ceremony, tied to Memorial Day 2016, dressed in his military uniform. I never would have anticipated at the time that he, too, would soon be counted among the ranks of SLS community members who have died while at war.
“It brings tears to my eyes to say it, but we will be similarly honoring Tripp on a plaque at SLS,” Dean Magill said in an email to the SLS community.
It’s difficult to process Tripp’s death. To say that the SLS community is devastated would be an understatement. His gregarious, infectious personality will be deeply missed. He was a good friend to so many, and his leadership helped those on the SLS campus and far, far beyond. He had so much more to contribute, and yet he had already given so much. For that, he will always be remembered. Tripp was the kind of selfless servant and leader that we should all strive to become. May Tripp’s legacy be an inspiration for all.
Image: Tripp Zanetis (on the far right) at the 2016 rededication ceremony for a plaque honoring former SLS students who died while serving in World War II. Photo credit: Stanford Law School.