Lynden solider talks being a flight medic and his family's military legacy
He’s the son and grandson of soldiers who served in two of modern history’s most famous battles, so it’s not unusual that National Guard Staff Sgt. Michael Walsh has spent most of his career in America’s armed forces.
“I was in basic training 11 days after high school graduation. I did not mess around,” said Walsh, 43, who lives in Lynden with his wife and two young children. “Between my grandfather and my dad, we’ve been in five total wars.”
That’s World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
You’re out there with the with the guys, and you’re their first line of defense.
Staff Sgt. Michael Walsh
His grandfather earned a Bronze Star for heroic service in the Third Army, under Gen. George S. Patton. A mortar operator, he was part of the determined Allied push to relieve troops surrounded at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Walsh’s father, with the Third Marine Recon Battalion, was in Vietnam in 1967 and fought during the 1968 Tet Offensive, a series of communist attacks against targets across South Vietnam. It became one of the war’s major campaigns.
Walsh himself has seen the front lines of battle, serving a 1-year tour in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, both with the Washington state National Guard.
But a rifle wasn’t his weapon of choice. Walsh was a combat medic.
Of course, he carried a rifle – an M-4 carbine, a short-barreled version of the M-16 – and a standard military sidearm, but he could shoot only to defend himself or a wounded GI. His mission was caring for the men in his unit. “Anything from hangnails to IEDs,” he said, referring to improvised explosive devices.
“If a bomb went off right now, I would jump on you to protect you,” he said. It’s the kind of selfless service that earned him the nickname “Doc.” Not every medic gets that honor.
“That’s what they call the medic they trust,” he said.
You get a radio call for med-evac required, and you’ve got 15 minutes to get in the air.
Staff Sgt. Michael Walsh
Walsh served with the infantry during his first overseas tour, a 2008 deployment to Al Asaad Air Base in central Iraq, near the end of the George W. Bush administration’s troop surge. In 2013, he’d undergone additional training and rode a Blackhawk helicopter equipped as an air ambulance out of Herat, in western Afghanistan.
“You’re out there with the with the guys, and you’re their first line of defense,” he said. “You can’t have blinders on. Fear gets in the way of you doing your job.”
Much of his work in Iraq involved protecting convoys in the desert, with the constant danger of IEDs and insurgent attacks. In Afghanistan, he stayed at a base, but his crew scrambled into the air whenever soldiers were injured.
“You get a radio call for med-evac required, and you’ve got 15 minutes to get in the air,” he said. That means in uniform, gathering his gear and lacing his boots on the fly. “It’s wheels-up in 15 minutes from the time you roll out of bed. Each dust-off unit is strategically placed, so you aren’t too far away.”
When Walsh enlisted in the Guard in 2007, it was his second stint in the service. He was in the Army from 1993 to 1997, serving with the 229th Aviation Battalion, an attack helicopter unit that’s part of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), made famous in the book “We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young,” made into a Mel Gibson movie.
After leaving the Army, he took 10 years off, doing odd jobs, because he had a young son from a previous marriage and he wanted to stay in one place, something that was not always possible for a soldier. He studied to be a certified nurse assistant, and used that to get placed as a medic when he enlisted in the Guard.
Stateside, he’s been working as a recruiter, and recently became a volunteer firefighter for Whatcom County Fire District 14 in Sumas.
“My passion is with medicine,” he said, adding that he hopes to become a nurse after leaving the service. “My mom’s a diabetic. I was checking blood sugar and giving insulin shots since I was 9 years old. I’ve always wanted to be a volunteer firefighter. We’re on our own time, coming together to help people out.”
This Veterans Day, Walsh is thinking of his military service in terms of a “bigger picture” as he reflects on those who’ve served before him.
“I don’t think I did anything,” he said. “I’m just one of a bajillion people who’ve signed on the dotted line. I have a lot of responsibility to the older vets. They paved the way for me. I wanted to continue the legacy. I grew up on a military base. ... It seemed like a natural progression.”