WASHINGTON — There was never any doubt in Maria Maldonado’s mind that her son, Ethan Arbelo, was going to be a Marine. It wasn’t quite a requirement, or a birthright, but it was strongly encouraged.
“Both of my brothers were Marines,” she says. “My uncle was a Marine.” Though she later clarified you never really stop being one. “My cousin is a Marine. I have an adopted brother who is a Marine. My nephew is also an active duty Marine. I’m actually still the only female in my family to ever join the military services, much less the Marine Corps.”
She too, was a Marine.
“He was raised with it,” Maldonado says about Ethan. “That kid pretty much came out with a high and tight. I was groomed with esprit de corps and he was too.”
Eventually Ethan would get to fulfill his lifelong dream to be a Marine. It just came sooner than anyone would have liked.
When Ethan was 10 he was diagnosed with grade III anaplastic astrocytoma, a deadly form of brain cancer. It’d be easy to say the first seven months were the roughest because cancer almost succeeded in taking Ethan that quickly. But things didn’t necessarily get that much better once the first seven months passed.
“We had to pull him out of school,” Maldonado says. “It was the military branches, more specifically my Marine Corps brothers and sisters, that stepped up to help support me number one, and support my son.”
Maria’s devotion to Ethan eventually meant she’d lose her job. She received the news while sitting at Ethan’s bedside.
“It was really brutal. So, he realized fairly quickly what it meant to be a Marine and what they meant by no man left behind,” says Maldonado.
The support didn’t just come financially either. She said numerous Marines from around the country would hear about Ethan and reach out to him over the phone to offer words of encouragement.
“One of the things I told him when he was diagnosed was ‘I’m your CO (commanding officer) and you’re my Marine, and you’re not allowed to quit until I tell you it’s OK to,'” Maldonado said. “‘I’m going to need you to fight until you can’t fight anymore.’ And he did. He gave it his all.”
It’d be pretty hard to suggest Ethan’s resiliency was anything short of incredible. While the cancer in his brain was stubborn and aggressive, he was too, even as he maintained a youthful and positive outlook on life.
He recorded himself in a series of video blogs for the Naples Daily News in southwest Florida. While some entries revealed just how hard the battle was, how tired he got, and how vulnerable he felt, other times he riffed on the typical occurrences of life seen through the eyes of a boy becoming a teenager. Sometimes he sang. Sometimes he watched movies, or recorded himself in the car.
Operation Devil Pup
Ethan spent his whole life being raised as the next in line for the United States Marine Corps, and his mother wasn’t going to let cancer deny her son that opportunity.
“The first question he had when he found out he had cancer was, ‘Does this mean I don’t get to go to Parris Island?'” Maldonado said.
That happened in March 2012. In 2013 she launched Operation Devil Pup.
“It meant he was going to get to do what he didn’t think he could,” Maldonado said.
It culminated on Halloween 2013, when Maria drove her son to the headquarters of the 4th Marine Assault Amphibian Battalion, located in Tampa, Florida. Even today she’s still surprised she was able to keep it a secret.
His interest piqued, dozens of Marines approached, led by Gen. Robert Neller, who was the commanding general of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. They were there to make Ethan an Honorary Marine, an award that had been bestowed fewer than 100 times before that day.
“He just got this really great, big grin,” Maldonado said. “It was humongous.”
Ethan Arbelo was given a proclamation signed by the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, as well as a full uniform, boots and all the pins that come with joining the corps.
Ethan wasn’t going to live long enough for boot camp at Parris Island. But cancer wasn’t going to stop him from joining the Marines either.
“I knew how much it meant to him, and I knew how let down he was thinking he was not going to be able to become a Marine,” says Maldonado. “It was really a great moment.”
And it was a moment she said Ethan would talk about for the next several weeks. It helped inspire him to fight on for the next several months.
On July 3, 2014, Ethan passed away.
This year Maria is running the Marine Corps Marathon because her son Ethan never got to.
“I’ve decided to do a lot of things that he’s never going to have the privilege to do,” Maldonado said. “Running actually helped me with the grief. It actually helps me with the grief,” she said. So, at the suggestion of a friend who is running too, Maria is running for Ethan.
“I know that he would have really wanted to do that,” Maldonado said. “He was really big on challenges.”
She is determined to grind through the race, just as Ethan found a way to grind through and join the Marine Corps despite the limitations imposed on him by cancer.
“I just want to finish it,” Maldonado said with tears welling up and sadness cracking her voice. “I want to do it because he can’t. And I’m going to be really excited because it’s something he should be seeing that he’s not going to be able to, and I just hope he’s looking down watching.
“I hope he gets to see everybody just come together for one sole purpose … and just what it means to finish among your brothers. That’s important to me.”