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12-27-06, 02:47 PM
Letter reveals Navy medic's last acts

Chris Walsh of Leawood, killed Sept. 4 in Iraq, had refused an early return home in order to help an Iraqi infant girl.

By Lee Hill Kavanaugh
The Kansas City Star
The Kansas City Star
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News

LEAWOOD, Kan. — Maureen Walsh buried her son a few days after Labor Day.

A month later, the day before his birthday, the letter arrived — a gift a grieving mother can hold close in this season.

Chris Walsh, a 30-year-old Navy medic, was killed Sept. 4 in Fallujah, Iraq, when his Humvee took a blast from a roadside bomb. Two Marines died with him.

But what this Leawood mother didn't know until she read the letter, written by his captain, was the story behind her son's last actions.

The letter — and a story this month in the Boston Globe — told how Chris Walsh had helped an Iraqi baby girl suffering with a deformity that would kill her just as effectively as any bomb. The letter spoke of a man's honor and heart.

Walsh, a 1994 Bishop Miege High School grad and an Eagle Scout, had a history of doing the right thing, whether it was inside the slums of St. Louis, where he had worked as a paramedic, or stopping to help wounded civilians in Iraq.

He found the 2-month-old baby girl in June while his Marines were chasing a "bad guy" in and out of a slew of low-slung village buildings. But when Walsh saw her, his mission changed. He put down his M4 carbine and picked her up.

She was tiny and sick.

Walsh took photos of her birth defect, called bladder exstrophy, in which the bladder grows outside the body. He showed the photos to the doctor back at his base, but learned that the surgery was too intricate for the military's combat support hospitals.

She needs to go to the United States, the doctor told him.

A quest to find help
For months, Walsh tried to find a way to get her the surgery. But that would mean a flight to the U.S., along with visas for her and her family, and all the paperwork and financial commitments that a medical evacuation would entail.

He continued to visit her, always after the sun went down, always taking a different route to her home, monitoring her health. She was growing sicker and more listless. Other Marines went along with the Navy medic, every one a volunteer. Walsh had told his platoon about her, making an impassioned plea one night about saving the sweet baby girl named Mariam with the big brown eyes and thick brown hair.

But he never told his mom about her. Only months later did Walsh's mother learn that her son was so dedicated to saving Mariam that he refused an offer for an early deployment home. He needed more time.

Then his convoy hit the roadside bomb.

His brother, Patrick, a Marine who also was serving in Iraq, escorted his younger brother's body back to Kansas City. For the family it was a blur of images. Uniformed officers at their door. The funeral. Last goodbyes.

The Marine platoon in Iraq feared the efforts of Walsh and his buddies would be forgotten. Officers worried about the unit's morale.

But Walsh's buddies couldn't let his mission falter. They couldn't let down the Navy medic they called "Grumpy," who had believed so much in saving a little child.

E-mails flew around the world about what Walsh and his Marine brothers had tried to do. So did prayers and phone calls. Surely someone would help an infant innocent of war and hatred and killings.

Finally, hope
Finally, clearance arrived for Mariam's evacuation. Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston volunteered to cover costs. And Capt. Sean Donovan wrote the letter to Maureen Walsh.

"I couldn't believe it when I started reading," she said last week. "But it was so like Chris to do something like this."

She said her son had a habit of befriending kids no one else liked, and a tendency to do what was right regardless of personal costs.

Maureen Walsh said she felt compelled to meet this baby. So on a brisk November day, she walked into a hushed pediatric unit filled with uniformed Marines, doctors, nurses, two Iraqi grandparents, two reporters and many tears from onlookers, and she cuddled a gurgling, pink-cheeked girl wearing an ice-cream-pink dress and a tiny bow in her hair.

All Walsh could do was stare at Mariam.

And it seemed all Mariam wanted to do was smile back.

"It was magical," Walsh said.

She came home, still warm with the memory. She knows she's behind in her Christmas preparations; she usually makes all the bows for her presents.

Her home isn't gloomy. It's gaily decorated with a Christmas tree and a swath of twinkling lights. Her two youngest children, Joe, 20, and Meghan, 17, have helped ease the pain of loss, she said.

Her husband, Thomas Walsh, died two years ago of leukemia.

But for all the sadness that has visited this household, the Walsh family can still feel happiness.

"With (Thomas) going through a couple of serious illnesses... maybe that taught us something," she said. "Life isn't always fair, but that's what we have."

Mariam will need more surgery a few years from now. Her Iraqi grandparents who accompanied her to America, and then took her back to Iraq, asked for a picture of Chris before they left. They're keeping a scrapbook to show Mariam when she's older.

Although Mariam's family doesn't have a computer, and there's no way to send a letter, Walsh winked and said she knew the baby would be watched and periodic updates would come her way.

"There's a lot of military over there," she said. "This baby is special... and my door will always be open to her, whenever she might like to come to Kansas City."