About Unto death, platoon fulfills a mission in Iraq
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Unto death, platoon fulfills a mission in Iraq info
December 4, 2006
Saving Baby Mariam
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff
It was a routine patrol, in the third week of June -- if, in fact, there is such a thing as a routine patrol in Fallujah, in the Anbar Province of Iraq.
Chris Walsh, a Navy medic assigned to a US Marines weapons company, was riding in a Humvee with three Marines, when a hidden bomb exploded in the dirt road just in front of them.
Even before the thick dust had settled, the Marines, and Walsh, were out of the vehicle, looking for the insurgents who had planted the remote-control device. The triggerman, as several who joined the pursuit vividly recall, was spotted first on a rooftop, then on the ground making his escape through the maze of ramshackle houses that line the road.
When Walsh and the Marines came to one doorway, M-4 rifles up and ready, a woman emerged from a room, holding an infant and saying, over and over again, "Baby. Baby sick."
Walsh put his gun down and the woman put the baby down.
Walsh had seen bad things -- as an EMT back home in St. Louis, and at war. But he told his comrades he had never seen anything like this: The child, just a few months old, looked as though her insides had been turned inside out.
Her name was Mariam, and she looked up at Walsh with dead eyes.
Suddenly, finding the bad guys became secondary. Walsh, the Marines recall, examined the child, pulled out a digital camera and took pictures to show the doctors back at base camp. As soon as Captain Sean Donovan , a doctor assigned to the First Battalion 25th Marine Regiment out of Fort Devens in Ayer, saw them, he knew the baby had a rare condition in which the bladder develops outside the body. Donovan said she wouldn't live long without surgery of a kind she couldn't get in Iraq.
"Then," Donovan recalls Walsh saying, "we've got to get her out of here, sir."
It seemed a noble sentiment, if, in the middle of a war, a bit naive. But Walsh meant it. Saving Baby Mariam became his mission. At chow one night, he stood up and explained to the Marines in his platoon what he wanted to do. He said he'd need help. And one by one, the Marines put up their hands.
Mike Henderson , a Marine major from Maine, told Walsh and Donovan that his nephew was born with the same condition, called a bladder exstrophy , and that the boy had successful surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. Donovan began using his computer, trying to find the appropriate medical care and a shortcut through the maddening military bureaucracy, a way to get the child out. Rev. Marc Bishop, a Chelmsford priest who is battalion chaplain, started e-mailing friends back home, looking for money and help.
Meanwhile, each week, under the cover of darkness, wearing night-vision goggles, Chris Walsh and a dozen Marines made their way to the shanty where Mariam lived. They parked their Humvees a mile away and walked a different, circuitous route each time. Staff Sergeant Edward Ewing, the platoon leader who devised and led the covert nocturnal visits, said Walsh's team followed a routine: Lance Corporal Eric Valdepenas , a 21-year-old from Seekonk, and Cody Hill, a 23-year-old lance corporal from Oklahoma, hid outside Mariam's house, providing cover, along with some others; Corporal Jared Shoemaker , 29, a police officer back in Tulsa, accompanied Donovan and Walsh inside the house, where they tended to Mariam as best they could, trying to ward off an infection that could kill her.
"We're going to get her the help she needs," Walsh would say, to a family that didn't speak English but somehow understood that the Americans, loathed as an occupying force by many in Fallujah, represented Mariam's only chance.
Over the summer, they made great strides. Father Bishop had struck gold with an e-mail to Christopher Anderson , one of his parishioners at St. Mary's Church. Anderson, who is president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, lined up 16 companies to pay to get the baby to Boston. Donovan, meanwhile, had found Dr. Rafael V. Pieretti , a Venezuelan surgeon at Mass. General who is one of the few doctors in the United States who specialize in the condition. Pieretti and Mass. General offered their services free of charge.
But there it all stalled. There were some 5,000 Iraqi civilians seeking to leave the country for medical care, and Mariam, it seemed, would have to wait her turn.
"We had a lot of things lined up," Donovan said, "but we couldn't get the permission we needed to get her out of Iraq."
On Labor Day, Sept. 4, Walsh and his team were on another routine patrol in another section of Fallujah, about a mile from Mariam's house. Ewing was in the lead vehicle and noticed some kids playing soccer off the side of the road. Then came the blast, which lifted the rear of Ewing's 5-ton Humvee off the road. But it was Walsh's Humvee just behind that took what the Marines call a belly shot: The bomb exploded directly under the vehicle.
"Victor Five is down!" a Marine screamed over the radio. "Victor Five is down!"
Ewing and some Marines rushed to the smoking wreckage. Greg Cinelli, a medic from Haverhill, tried to keep them away. They pushed their way past him, and Cine lli turned his attention to Hill, who had severe burns over more than half of his body. Hill was in shock but kept asking about the others.
"You made it out!" Cinelli told Hill. "They can, too!"
But Cinelli was just trying to give Hill the will to live. There was nothing he or anybody else could do for the others: Valdepenas, the youngest of eight kids, who left the University of Massachusetts at Amherst when his unit got called to active duty, Shoemaker, with a wife back in Oklahoma, and Walsh, the author of the mission for Mariam, were dead.
With their seven-month rotation about to end, and 11 members of their battalion dead and 83 wounded, the Marines decided there was only one way to honor their dead brothers and that was to make sure the baby was saved.
E-mails from Fallujah shot all around the United States, detailing the risks that Walsh and the Marines had taken, the effort expended, and the blood spilled. Suddenly, the red tape loosened, and in early October Mariam was flown to Boston. The surgery was successful, and she is doing well.
More than a month after Maureen Walsh buried her son, she stood in her living room in Kansas, reading a handwritten letter from Donovan.
"You need to know this about your son," Donovan wrote.
She had not known about Mariam, had not known that her son spent months, surrounded by the chaos of war, trying to save her. And it was then, as she stood there, tears falling onto Sean Donovan's letter, that Maureen Walsh knew she had to see the child, and hold her in her arms.
Chris Walsh grew up in Kansas, the oldest of five kids. He was popular, but had an instinctive sympathy for those who were not.
"He would bring home the kid no one else would play with," his mother recalled.
He was a good student and something of a perfectionist. But he was also restless. Accepted to college, he decided not to go, embarking instead on what his mother calls "a Jack Kerouac journey" across America.
Six weeks later, he called home from San Francisco, broke. At 22, when his peers were graduating from college, he enrolled in EMT school. He was his class valedictorian, but asked the school's director to omit mention of that distinction at the graduation ceremony.
He liked working the streets of St. Louis as an EMT, though he told his mother there were too many wasted hours between real emergency calls. After the 9/11 attacks, he joined the Navy reserves. His father, a Marine, had seen combat in Vietnam. His brother, Patrick, was a Marine serving in Iraq. Navy medics are assigned to Marine units, and Walsh began getting the training he needed to go to Iraq.
"He believed that no able bodied person, who had no responsibilities beyond themselves, should stay here when there were people with spouses and children overseas," his mother said.
After he and his unit arrived in Iraq, it didn't take long for his serious, gruff demeanor to earn him a Marine nickname: Grumps.
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"Chris was 30 years old, and a lot of these Marines are kids, so they gravitated to him," said Edgar Gallego, a corpsman who is an EMT in New York City and partnered with Walsh in Iraq. "Chris was more experienced, so a lot of times I'd look at a Marine who was hurting and say, 'Go to Grumps.' "
On patrol in Iraq, Navy medics are more than medics. They carry carbines , just like the Marines, and they fight, just like the Marines.
"When you're in an infantry unit, you're in the infantry," Gallego explained.
And Walsh was always pushing to do more.
Ewing said that whenever they were on patrol, Walsh would ask to stop when they saw injured Iraqis on the street. In Fallujah, a hotbed of Sunni insurgents, this was more than risky. Ewing and his Marines would take up cover positions as Walsh operated his impromptu sidewalk clinics.
"It wasn't part of his job. Wasn't part of our job," Ewing said. "But Chris could not pass someone who was suffering and not help."
It was because of the way Walsh and the three Marines he rode with conducted themselves that their deaths resonated so deeply through their platoon.
After the fatal Sept. 4 attack, Ewing and his platoon were told to stand down, take a couple of days off. Besides respecting the platoon's sense of loss, Ewing said his superior officers wanted to guard against the possibility of the grief-stricken Marines seeking revenge.
Ewing admits those concerns were justified.
"It was hard not to go out and retaliate. It was hard as a platoon," he said. "But we all got talking, and we knew what those guys were about. They wouldn't have wanted us to retaliate. Then it became doing everything to honor them. We used their memories to push forward, and to get that baby out."
A few hours after Walsh, Valdepenas, and Shoemaker were killed, another patrol from their company was hit: two Marines, including Terrence Burke, a Boston police officer, lost legs in the blast. Ignoring the order to take some time off, Ewing and his men raced to the scene to help their brother Marines. And a few days later, Ewing resumed leading the middle-of-the-night visits to Mariam's home.
All 30 men in the platoon joined, at various times, in the volunteer effort. Mariam's family wondered what had happened to Walsh and the others, but the Marines decided not to tell them.
The last week of September, with Mariam's case still bogged down in bureaucracy, Captain Donovan stopped by Father Bishop's office. The battalion was "ripping," as Marines call the process of packing up to leave Iraq. Donovan was despairing, feeling they had let Walsh and the others down by failing to get the baby out.
"Have you prayed about it?" the priest asked Donovan.
"What?" Donovan asked.
"Have you prayed?" Father Bishop said.
Donovan sheepishly admitted he had not. Bishop suggested Donovan go to the small chapel next door and say the Memorare, a prayer to Mary, the mother of Jesus, which in part reads, "Never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession, was left unaided."
Sean Donovan knelt down and said a Christian prayer for a Muslim girl whose Anglicized name is Mary.
The next day, Donovan opened an e-mail notifying him that Mariam had been cleared for medical evacuation to Boston.
An 'act of God'
Three weeks ago, Maureen Walsh stood on the 17th floor of the pediatric ward at Mass. General, rocking Mariam in her arms. The vacant stare that Chris Walsh first encountered has been replaced by a pair of bright, inquisitive brown eyes.
Mariam stared up at Maureen Walsh and smiled back.
Having arrived in Boston listless, malnourished, and underdeveloped, Mariam has put on two pounds and now weighs 12 pounds.
"This is a different girl than the one who arrived here in October," said Dr. Laurence Ronan, who has overseen Mariam's care and will take her and her grandparents back to Iraq soon.
Mariam's grandparents, who traveled with her because her mother has not recovered from complications at childbirth, told Maureen Walsh they had learned of Chris' death last month, when Captain Donovan visited them at the hospital.
Mariam's grandfather took Maureen Walsh's hand in his and, speaking in Arabic, said, "Thank you for your son."
Mariam's family does not believe it was coincidence that Chris Walsh was the one who came into their house in hot pursuit of someone who had tried to kill him and instead put down his gun and picked up Mariam.
"This," her grandfather said, nodding solemnly, "was an act of God. God sent Chris. To Mariam. So she will live."
Maureen Walsh shares that assessment.
"There were too many coincidences for it to be coincidence," she said. "Chris was waiting his whole life for something like this."
Maureen Walsh shook her head and stroked Mariam's hair.
"Look at her," she said. "Isn't she beautiful?"
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Read this story in this morning's Globe.
One of the few articles about the Iraq war that the Globe can be proud of.
"It doesn't take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle." - Norman Schwarskopf, Commander of Desert Storm Operations
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