TAMPA — Ethan Arbelo will make it onto the “Wall of Fame” after all.
The 12-year-old boy’s mom, Maria Maldonado, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, has one kitchen wall covered with photos of friends and relatives who have served in the Marines — brothers Joe, Randy and Edward, cousin Ray, uncle James, Parris Island boot camp buddy Shannon, and Maldonado herself.
“In my family, we pass on our love for the Marine Corps to the next generation,” Maldonado said. “He’s been groomed for it since birth. That’s been one of the big disappointments when he got sick — he said, ‘Does this mean I’m not going to Parris Island?’ ”
The single mom from Fort Myers paused to keep her composure.
“Now, his picture goes there, too.”
Ethan, who was diagnosed last year with a malignant brain tumor, was named an Honorary Marine on Thursday during a ceremony at the headquarters of the 4th Marine Assault Amphibian Battalion in Tampa.
Dozens of Marines joined the youngster, his family and friends as he was presented with the official proclamation, pins, commemorative coins, and his uniform and boots.
The proclamation was presented by Gen. Robert Neller, commanding general of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. It was signed by Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps and the service’s highest officer.
What does it mean to be a Marine?
“It means that I’m awesome,” Ethan said.
The shy youngster didn’t have much more to say about his experience, other than it was “pretty cool” to receive the honor and to have met Gen. Neller.
After the ceremony, Ethan and a few hospital buddies crawled around on some amphibious assault vehicles and beeped the horn of an armor-plated Humvee topped by a .50-caliber machine gun.
“It’s nice to do this,” Neller said. “Based on what I know, his prognosis is a tough one, and if this can help him hang in there and fight the fight better, that’s what we wanted to do.”
Ethan has a type of cancer called anaplastic astrocytoma. Since his diagnosis, he has gone on a cross-country road trip and friends and neighbors in the Fort Myers area have held events and benefits on his behalf.
The Honorary Marine title recognizes civilians who have made extraordinary contributions to the corps. There is a special category for children.
It is a rare honor; Neller said he’s never presented one before. The Marine Corps website lists just three citations this year: In addition to Ethan, U.S. Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young received the honor posthumously at his recent funeral in Pinellas County, and a young Kansas Marine recruit also diagnosed with a brain tumor was honored.
During a rest break Thursday at the Marine reserve center near the foot of the Gandy Bridge, Master Sgt. Will Price tried to coach Ethan through some Marine swagger.
“Repeat after me,” Price said. “Once a Marine … ”
The sergeant didn’t need to finish his instructions.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” Ethan fired back.