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LGBT leader Christopher Tripp Zanetis killed in Iraq helicopter crash

by Heather Cassell

Christopher Tripp Zanetis. Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Citizen
Christopher Tripp Zanetis. Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Citizen  

Stanford Law School graduate and Air National Guard search and rescue airman Christopher Tripp Zanetis died in a helicopter crash in Iraq March 15. He was 37.

Mr. Zanetis, a gay man who was known as Tripp, was just starting his legal career as an associate in the litigation department of Debevoise and Plimpton LLP in New York. He joined the firm in the fall of 2017 after he spent a summer as an intern at the firm.

He was also a fire marshal with the New York City Fire Department.

Mr. Zanetis was a rising star, working toward building a political career, wrote Stanford Law Professor Michelle Wilde Anderson in a memorial to her late student in Stanford Lawyer.

"Tripp Zanetis is gold," she wrote. "He would have been a leader for our times."

Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg told ABC 7 News that Mr. Zanetis was a "brilliant young lawyer and amazing human being."

Weisberg told the media outlet that Mr. Zanetis was a part of a team dubbed the "Fearless Four," who flew into combat to help wounded American soldiers.

The team was credited with saving nearly 100 lives, he said.

Mr. Zanetis received four Air Medals for combat missions from the military. He was serving his third tour of duty abroad. This month's tour was his second in Iraq. Media reports said the crash occurred when the search and rescue helicopter he was piloting, which was carrying six other service members, either hit power lines or experienced a technical malfunction and went down soon after takeoff. All aboard were killed.

The helicopter went down in Qaim, in the Anbar province in western Iraq. The area was the last holdout for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the country and remains active as a transit point for ISIS fighters fleeing Syria, according to media reports.

Enemy fire was not believed to be the cause, according to the Pentagon, which is investigating the incident.

President Donald Trump and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the seven service members of the 106th Rescue Wing who died in the crash and offered condolences to their families.

A life of service
Mr. Zanetis dedicated his life to serving people. It all started on September 11, 2001. Unlike many who ran from the Twin Towers as they crumbled in concrete and flames following the terrorist attacks, Mr. Zanetis ran toward the disaster. A political major at New York University at the time, he lived three blocks from ground zero. He jumped into action, helping first responders until midnight that day. September 11 transformed his life, wrote Anderson.

Mr. Zanetis graduated from NYU cum laude with a degree in politics in 2003. While in college he competed on the dive team and worked at nightclubs.

Soon after graduation, Mr. Zanetis was appointed as a firefighter for the New York Fire Department with Engine Company 28 on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He rose in the ranks to fire marshal by 2013. He served as a part of a small cohort of fire marshals assigned to investigate suspicious or fatal fires. Mr. Zanetis earned honors for a drug bust in a Waldorf Astoria Hotel room while on the team, Anderson wrote.

In 2008, Mr. Zanetis joined the Air National Guard, where he trained to become a search and rescue pilot and received the only Honor Graduate award in his 100-person graduating class. He served abroad for military search and rescue and domestically along the northeastern seaboard of the United States for civilian search and rescue. He was scheduled to end his service in 2020.

The Air National Guard taught Mr. Zanetis how to work with people whose views widely diverged from his own, wrote Anderson.

"I am quite sure, [he] would have moved through danger to save the life of someone who had just insulted him with a homophobic slur," she wrote, noting that Mr. Zanetis believed "in the capacity of people to change."

Mr. Zanetis grew up in Bloomington and Carmel, Indiana. His father was a lawyer and his grandfather was a judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals. Mr. Zanetis came out to his family in 1995 when he was 15 years old. His family was supportive of him, wrote Anderson.

An exceptional law student
Mr. Zanetis was on an unpaid leave from the fire department while attending Stanford Law School, where he received his juris doctorate with pro-bono distinction in 2017. That same year, he received the LGBT Bar Association's top honor, the Student Leadership Award.

He was an advocate for transgender individuals serving in the military. He praised the Pentagon's lifting of the ban against transgender military members in 2016 and spoke out against Trump's attempts to reinstate the ban the following year.

"Tripp was an exceptional individual who was dedicated to improving the lives of those around him," D'Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association, wrote in a statement to the Bay Area Reporter.

During law school, Mr. Zanetis juggled his military duties with an active student life on campus. He worked for the Stanford Journal of International Law, provided pro-bono legal assistance through the Iraqi Refugee Assistance program, and served with the International Human Rights Clinic to reform foreign military tribunals.

He was an active member of the LGBT and veteran student groups and co-produced and performed in the school's annual satirical musical.

As co-president of the Stanford Law Veterans Organization, Mr. Zanetis spearheaded the effort to restore and permanently install the law school's memorial for World War II veterans who were students for public viewing for the first time in several decades.

Stanford News reported that Mr. Zanetis' name will be added to the list of students who were lost during military duty on the wall in Stanford's Memorial Auditorium.

As a member of the National LGBT Bar Association, he facilitated Stanford's inaugural OutLaw Conference on LGBTQ advocacy in the workplace.

"We are heartbroken at his loss," M. Elizabeth Magill, Stanford Law School dean, told the Mercury News. "He was one of the most extraordinary students I had the privilege of knowing and he will long be remembered in the institution."

Flags flew at half-staff on the Stanford campus to honor Mr. Zanetis upon learning of his death, reported Stanford News.

Military members who perished in the helicopter crash with Mr. Zanetis included fellow New York firefighter Christopher J. Raguso, Dashan Briggs, Andreas O'Keeffe, William Posch, Carl Enis, and Mark Weber.

Mr. Zanetis was single and lived in Manhattan. He is survived by his parents, John and Sarah Zanetis, and sisters, Angela and Britt.

Students, faculty, and staff at Stanford Law School are planning a memorial event to celebrate Mr. Zanetis' life this spring. Details weren't available at press time.

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