Tulsa Marine, teammates gave their lives to save Iraqi child
BY CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, September 04, 2011
9/04/11 at 7:07 AM
Visit our online memorial to Sept. 11, 2001.
All his life, Jared Shoemaker wanted to be part of a team.
Football. Rugby. The Tulsa Police Department. The U.S. Marine Corps.
He wanted to serve, to be a part of something bigger than himself.
"It was just always his nature," said his father, Ken Shoemaker.
Deployed to Iraq in 2006 as a Marine reservist, Tulsa Police Officer Jared Shoemaker became part of a team whose members selflessly risked their own lives to save someone else's: a baby named Mariam.
It was Chris Walsh, a Navy corpsman assigned to Shoemaker's Marine platoon, who first saw the infant Iraqi girl desperately in need of medical attention. Walsh made it his mission to get Mariam out of Iraq to a hospital that could help her. He asked for help.
Jared Shoemaker was in.
On the hunt
The Victor-5 team was running through the streets of Fallujah looking for a trigger man.
It was June 2006, and their patrol Humvee had just been hit by an improvised explosive device. The blast rattled the foursome, led by 29-year-old Cpl. Jared Shoemaker, called "Shoe" by his fellow Marines.
Shoe and Walsh, an EMT nicknamed "Doc," were slightly older and felt responsible for the "young guys," Lance Cpl. Eric Valdepenas, a 21-year-old from Seekonk, Mass., and 23-year-old Lance Cpl. Cody Hill of Ada.
Hill, a gunner, had been up in the turret and was hit hardest. He had a concussion, but the cowboy who brought his roping dummy to Iraq shook it off and joined his team hunting for the man who had tried to kill them.
They were scouring the area, which was hostile territory plagued by sectarian violence. Their weapons were raised and ready.
Then they met Mariam.
"Doc Walsh came across this baby," Hill recalled. "And all of a sudden, she took precedence over finding the man who blew us up."
Mariam was born with a rare condition in which the bladder develops outside the body. She was less than a year old, and she wasn't doing well.
Walsh took pictures of her with a digital camera to show the doctors back at base. They told him the baby needed surgery or she might die.
"We literally got blown up, and God took us into that house and we found her," Hill said. "Everything happens for a reason."
A master plan
The Marines came up with a plan: They would sneak Navy Capt. Sean Donovan, a doctor assigned to the 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, from the base to Mariam's house under the cover of night.
Each week, they would risk their lives to help her.
Hill and Valdepenas provided cover outside the house, and Donovan, Walsh and Shoemaker tended to Mariam.
Donovan would treat her, provide medical supplies and instruct her parents on how to care for her. Walsh and Shoemaker worked to build trust with her family.
Donovan contacted doctors back in the United States, trying to find someone who could do the surgery Mariam needed and a way to get her to a willing hospital.
They found a team at Massachusetts General Hospital, including surgeon Rafael Pieretti and internal medicine doctor Larry Ronan, who offered to treat Mariam for free, and some funding to get the baby to Boston.
But there were several problems: The baby's father was scared to travel to the United States for fear of retribution by his neighbors, and he wouldn't let his wife travel to a foreign country by herself, Hill recalled.
And they were running out of time. The Marines had a little more than 30 days left in their deployment and didn't know if a replacement team would be willing to risk their lives for an Iraqi baby whose chances were precarious at best.
There was a long list of Iraqis waiting to come to the United States for medical care and humanitarian reasons, and Mariam wasn't at the top.
Walsh and the team grew frustrated.
"I could tell it was eating at him," Hill said.
Shoemaker never mentioned the mission for Mariam to his parents, Linda and Ken Shoemaker, back in Tulsa.
"I would ask him what we could pray for," Linda Shoemaker said. "He would tell me, 'Pray to keep these guys focused so that I can get them home safely.' "
On Sept. 4, 2006, the Victor-5 team was patrolling the area around a hotel where another Marine unit was having a memorial service for its members who had been killed by sniper fire a few days earlier.
"They tell me it was about 10:30 or 11:30 a.m.," Hill said.
He remembers switching with Valdepenas, so he was driving and "Val" was manning the turret. The streets were covered with junk and trash.
Hill doesn't remember the blast. The IED detonated under their Humvee, killing Shoemaker, Walsh and Valdepenas. The blast blew Hill's door off and tossed him out of the fireball.
"The first kind of recollection I have is two guys - a platoon commander and a doc for another platoon - covering me with a fire blanket," he said.
Hill was badly burned and had shrapnel in his right eye. They loaded him in a med-evac vehicle and rushed him to a hospital in Fallujah, where he underwent an emergency tracheotomy and was put into a medically induced coma. Before he went under, he kept asking about the team.
"They just kept telling me everybody was all right," he said.
Hill remembered how he took the brunt of that June explosion when they first met Mariam and how the rest of his team barely had a scratch.
"Maybe I'm just the biggest pansy and they're still out there fighting," he told himself. "They were the toughest group of guys I'd ever known. I just didn't think it was possible that they were gone if I was still there."
It was almost 20 days later at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio that doctors slowly brought Hill out of his medically induced coma while they worked to save his life.
In his coma haze and morphine dreams, he would talk to the guys. It was the first thing he wanted to know.
"Are Shoe and Doc and Val hurt, or are they still over there?" Hill asked.
A commander finally had to break it to him: They were gone. Only Hill had survived.
"That was the hardest day in my life," he recalled.
Shoemaker had already been buried back in Tulsa with full military and police honors.
Hill faced an uphill recovery with third-degree burns over 56 percent of his body.
But things happen for a reason, he believes now.
As Hill fought his way back to health, a baby girl named Mariam was on her way from Iraq to Boston for her own life-saving surgery.
Back in Fallujah, a group of Marines had worked to make sure the Victor-5 team's mission to save Mariam wasn't in vain.
"If I could find anything good to come out of this, it's her," Hill said.
A team victory
"In many ways, they saved her life," said Larry Ronan, one of the doctors who treated Mariam when she came to Massachusetts General Hospital for surgery in 2006.
Doctors there believe that Mariam is alive and now 5 years old, as of the last communication they had with sources in Iraq.
Her family was supposed to return to Boston within two years for a follow-up visit, but there was a death in her family and they moved, so doctors lost communication with her family for a period.
About a year and a half ago, Ronan started working on paperwork to get Mariam humanitarian parole admittance into the United States for medical treatment. This September, he's trying again.
"Our paperwork suggests that she's still alive," he said. "If it works out, then maybe she'll come back this fall and we can get her here for follow-up treatment."
If Mariam makes it to Boston, at least three people in Oklahoma will eagerly hop on a plane to meet her: Cody Hill and Ken and Linda Shoemaker.
"Jared Shoemaker was (in Iraq) for every right reason," Hill said. "He felt like he owed America something, whether it be his life or his service - he didn't care."
Every Sept. 4, a group of Marines gathers at Linda and Ken Shoemaker's house to remember Jared.
A natural leader. The ultimate team player. They visit his grave and talk about how much they miss him.
"Jared brought out the best in everybody he was with," his mother said.
Sometimes, they picture what his life would be like if he were still here: He'd be working as a police officer in Tulsa, maybe with a few kids.
"We really wish we could have seen him be a dad," Ken Shoemaker said.
But oceans and continents away, a little girl lives because of him and his brave team.
One day, the Shoemakers will see her face and know: This was what Jared always wanted.
Something bigger than himself.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. On the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, America continues to fight a war on terror that has claimed the lives of more than 100 Oklahomans. In the coming weeks, the Tulsa World will tell the stories of those who have given their lives, victims of 9/11 and how the attacks affected us all.
Original Print Headline: They risked all
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477
Ken and Linda Shoemaker look at a scrapbook of photographs and newspaper articles about their son Jared, a Tulsa Police officer and Marine reservist. Jared Shoemaker was killed in Iraq in September 2006 when a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World
Mariam, an Iraqi child, is shown with some of the U.S. military members who helped her get treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in November 2006. The service members are (from left) Marine Lance Cpl. Corey Robbins and Navy medics John Garran and Greg Cinelli. MICHELE MCDONALD / Boston Globe
Jared Shoemaker: Known as "Shoe" by his fellow Marines, the Tulsa Police officer was lauded for being a good leader and teammate. "Jared brought out the best in everybody he was with," his mother said. He was killed in action in Iraq on Sept. 4, 2006.
Ken and Linda Shoemaker still take care of their son Jared's dog, Samson. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World