CAMP BAHARIA, Iraq -- Maj. Bennet W. Walsh is leaving the fight of his life as a Marine to literally fight to save his life.
Walsh relinquished command of Weapons Company June 15 after learning he was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma – skin cancer. Walsh, assigned to 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5, was three months into his second tour in Iraq. He’s heading home to ensure the cancer doesn’t spread.
“There is definitely some sadness for having to leave the Marines here early, but unfortunately I have to go because of the time sensitivity for the surgery,” said Walsh, from Springfield, Mass.
After two tours in Iraq and several years of active duty assignments in the Marine Corps, it was only right to take the chance to lead a company of Marines in combat, according to Walsh.
While preparing for the seven month deployment, a biopsy was performed to test a spot on Walsh’s scalp. He didn’t find out the results until he and his Marines were sitting in Kuwait, waiting to cross the borders into Iraq.
“When I reached Kuwait was when I found out that I might have to leave the deployment early,” explained 36-year-old Walsh. “They called to let us know and the colonel delivered the news to me personally.”
But Walsh wasn’t ready to take off the uniform and put his weapon aside. His Marines were headed for combat operations and he would lead them.
“He pushed the envelope of medical authorities and his own health to be with his Marines,” said Lt.Col. Christopher A. Landro, the battalion’s commander.
“He could have left, but instead he pushed his cancer surgery off as far as he could,” added Maj. Craig R. Abele, Weapons Company’s new commander, a 35-year-old from Falls Church, Va. “He wanted to bring them into combat. It is a personal sacrifice that he made for his Marines.”
During the change of command ceremony here, Walsh passed his final words to his Marines, the company’s guidon to Abele, and shook the hand of each man in his company, adding “See you soon.”
“We are going to miss him,” said 22-year-old Lance Cpl. Jose F. Espinosa, from Queens, N.Y., who served along side his former commander as his vehicle’s turret gunner. “He was a great teacher and great mentor. I learned a lot from him and I am proud to have served with him.”
Walsh was responsible for a fleet of mobile assault platoons, and all of the Marines, vehicles, weapons and combat missions they conducted.
“He went above and beyond,” said Landro, 46, from Kennesaw, Ga. “He didn’t have to deploy with the battalion and he volunteered for the assignment as Weapons Company commander.
“The loyalty he felt to the Marines in this unit and the brotherhoods forged in combat were more powerful than concerns for his own heath,” he added.
“You just don’t see that every day. The fact that he wanted to stay as long as he did makes a testament to his dedication to his men and his personal courage,” Abele added.
The mission here will press on, but not without the memories of Walsh’s leadership and professionalism in the Marines of Weapons Company.
Walsh boarded a plane headed to the United States for the surgery to remove the cancer only 15 days prior to the medical deadline he was given. After recovery, he will return to duty and handle special tasks at the battalion’s headquarters at Fort Devens, Mass.