MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Marines train knowing some day they may have to fight in defense of their country and our way of life. But little did one Marine know when he boarded the plane for Okinawa in mid-December that in less than a month, he’d be fighting for his life.
Less than two weeks after Lance Cpl. Timothy Arevalo arrived in Okinawa with Bravo Co., 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, he experienced abdominal pains.
Arevalo initially thought he was having a bad time recovering from his long flight to Okinawa so he decided to wait out the pain.
"I felt bad, and my stomach hurt all the time," said the soft-spoken El Centro, Calif., native. "I finally went to medical and got some pain medicine, but I still felt really bad. It hurt so much I couldn’t even PT."
The pain worsened, and on New Years Eve the 19-year-old rifleman was admitted to the emergency room at Camp Lester Naval Hospital.
Doctors determined his liver was swollen, and after a series of blood tests, they decided to send Arevalo stateside for further testing.
"I called my parents from Lester, and I just told them I was sick," he explained. "I didn’t want to worry them, but I didn’t know what I had, so I didn’t know what to tell them either."
Ten days later doctors at Tripler Army Medical Center in Wahiawa, Hawaii, performed a bone marrow biopsy, and it was then, alone in his room, that doctors broke the news.
"They said I have leukemia," he said, a confused look on his face. "They told me on Sunday, and the next day, when my parents got there, the doctors told them too."
His leukemia, Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, results from an acquired (not inherited) genetic injury to the DNA of a single cell in the bone marrow, according to the Leukemia Lymphoma Society.
ALL is a common leukemia. Nearly 3,800 new cases of ALL are diagnosed in the United States every year, and ALL accounts for 75 percent of childhood leukemia cases.
Sitting in his bed on Five West at Naval Medical Center Balboa in San Diego, Arevalo is quiet when asked what he knows about the cause and cure for his disease.
"I really don’t understand it, and I just don’t want to think about it right now," he said, head down, hands busily arranging and rearranging the blankets on his bed.
His mother, sitting in a chair at the foot of his bed, sensed her son’s discomfort and interrupted.
"He won’t talk about it; doesn’t even want to read about it," Silvia Arevalo, explained softly in Spanish. "I have been reading and reading, and there is just so much to learn."
Silvia took a leave of absence from her job in El Centro and is staying at the Fisher House on the hospital grounds while her son undergoes treatment.
"When he called and said he was sick, all I could think was, ‘he’s never sick’," she said, tears brimming in her eyes. "When we got to Hawaii, and they said it was leukemia, so many things started through my mind. I just cried, and cried."
A lot has changed for Arevalo in the last month. As his platoon prepares to deploy with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit at the end of February, he is preparing to fight for his life.
With his family near by, he won’t be alone in the fight, and he won’t be forgotten by his platoon as he wages his battles.
"Lance Cpl. Arevalo is an outstanding Marine," said Gunnery Sgt Joe Simpson, Bravo Co. First Sergeant, in a phone call from Okinawa. "Bravo lost more than a team member when Arevalo was flown home. We’ve lost an important link in our chain while."
"We also lost a brother; a family member," Simpson explained. "The Marines talk about him constantly and not a day goes by without someone asking the company staff how he is doing."
Now that Arevalo has attached to the medical holding platoon at Balboa, he realizes he is not alone in his struggle.
He recently met another Combat Center Marine also battling with a similar type of leukemia. Headquarters Battalion’s Cpl. Shannon Smith was admitted to Balboa Sept. 18 with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia which attacks blood-forming tissues in the bone marrow.
"Hey neighbor," she joked as she introduced herself to Arevalo. "I’m from Twentynine Palms too, so we’ll have to hang out."
Arevalo admitted he was hesitant to have company because of the blisters and bruises on his arms.
"Um, we all get them around here," she laughed, her eyes bright. "Leukemia does that. Wait till your hair falls out."
Arevalo’s face erupted into a smile as Smith, gaunt and pale but smiling, ran her hand over the soft gray fuzz that covered her head.
Smith is in the last stages of her chemotherapy treatment, and Arevalo is just beginning his, but she assured him that she and the other Marines at the hospital would answer any of his questions.
When Smith asked if she could bring him anything, his eyes lit up and he suddenly looked more like a teenager than a young man who enlisted in the Marine Corps, knowing he might be called to war at any time.
"Well, I’m hoping my dad brings me a TV this weekend so I can play some video games while I’m stuck here," he admitted with a grin.
There are 19 Marine inpatients currently at Balboa. Their diagnoses include wound infections, bone infections, mental health, Hodgkin’s disease, and necrotizing fasciitis, according to Staff Sgt. Shawn Cheney, Marine Liaison, Naval Medical Center Balboa.
In addition to the inpatients, there are 36 outpatients, either recuperating from an accident or illness or currently undergoing treatment.
"We’ve got everything from recruits with flesh-eating bacteria, Marines who have lost an eye, and others with post traumatic stress syndrome," Cheney listed. "Those are just some of them."
Marines with frequent appointments or those needing to spend extended time during treatment are sometimes assigned to medical rehabilitation platoon as well.
"Cancer seems to be the disease of choice recently," said Cheney.
"Marines I've had assigned to me refuse to give up they are fighting for their lives, and trying to maintain a normal lifestyle whie they do it, he added."
For Arevalo, the fight is just beginning, and he plans to take it as it comes.
"I’ll just do what they tell me to, and play video games in between," he said, admitting there is nowhere he’d rather be than with his platoon. "I’ll try not to think about where they are or what they are doing while I get better. I can't wait to get back to them."
Video games are the last thing on his mother’s mind, as she thinks about his diagnosis.
"I didn’t want him to go to war," she sighed, tears filling her eyes again. "I knew that was a possibility when he joined the Marines—him going to war I have thought about it a lot. This leukemia though—there is no way to prepare for this. This is more difficult, much more difficult than thinking about him going over there."
Send your well wishes to the Marines of Medical Holding Platooon at:
34425 Farenholt Ave
San Diego, CA 92134