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Marine Helps Young Cancer Survivor Finish Triathalon

10:14 AM, Oct 12, 2012   |    comments
Pfc. Matthew Morgan was volunteering at a kids' triathlon when one of the participants, Ben Baltz, had trouble with his prosthetic leg. Morgan put Baltz, who lost part of his leg to bone cancer, on his back and ran him to the finish line. (Image Courtesy of Kim Baltz)
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Washington, DC (written by Gina Harkins/Marine Corps Times) -- On the morning 11-year-old Ben Baltz was preparing to race in a triathlon, his dad gave him a piece of dark chocolate. When he opened it, the inside of the foil wrapper contained a message for the young athlete -- "You're exactly where you need to be."

A few hours later, a photo was snapped of Baltz being carried across the finish line on the back of Pfc. Matthew Morgan, 19, a communications signals collection operator/analyst with Marine Detachment Corry Station in Pensacola, Fla. The two were surrounded by a pack of Marines as they completed the race in solidarity.

The photo, taken by a spectator, went viral -- and it's motivating Americans. That's because Baltz isn't a typical athlete. If he wants to run or play baseball, he has to strap a leg first.

Baltz's parents had to make the tough choice to amputate their son's leg when he was just 6 years old and battling bone cancer. Now he wears a prosthetic walking leg with a mechanical knee or a running leg for strenuous activities like triathlons.

Twenty-two Marines with the detachment, including Morgan, were volunteering at the Sea Turtle Tri kids' triathlon on Sunday. They helped set up and then encouraged the kids, who were making a 150-yard swim, a 4-mile bike ride and a 1-mile run to get to the finish line.

Morgan said Baltz was the only contestant he saw with a prosthetic and -- for most of the race -- he was passing other kids. But about halfway through the running portion, something went wrong.

"I saw Ben fall to the ground," Morgan said. "I made it there first and he had already regained his composure and was trying to fix his leg. I asked if he needed help and he said, 'No, I just want to finish the race.' "

But a screw had come out of the prosthetic, and Baltz couldn't fix it himself. So Morgan said he told him to hop on, and gave him a piggyback ride to the finish.

Morgan said he was surprised by what happened next. The announcer saw him carrying Baltz to the finish and told everyone to turn to watch what was happening on the course. The crowd cheered, some moved to tears, as the group made their way to the finish line, according to CNN.

Morgan said he was just there to do the right thing. His commanding officer, Capt. Frank Anderson, said he wasn't at all surprised by Morgan's reaction. He said his Marine has the mindset of excellence in everything he does.

"We are selfless as an institution in the Marine Corps," Anderson said. "Putting others before ourselves is second nature. I'm very pleased with the fact that a young man who is younger than my youngest brother gets the big picture."

Anderson said Morgan is nursing his own leg injuries, but he still didn't hesitate to put Baltz on his back and run him into the finish line.

Baltz's dad, J.C., a former Air Force pilot turned commercial pilot, said the Marines who were there that morning showed the spirit of the Corps.

"For the Marines to come out there that early in the morning on a Sunday to volunteer their time by helping set up and police the whole area, it just shows how darn caring they are," he said.

He said his son was a little miffed that he couldn't finish the race on his own. But Morgan said he knows if his leg hadn't broken, Baltz would've completed the run.

"As far as I'm concerned, he finished that race," Morgan said. "As long as he knows he could've finished it and wanted to finish it, that's all that matters."

Anderson said Baltz should know that even America's toughest warriors get carried from the battlefield sometimes, and Marines don't leave anyone behind.

J.C. Baltz said Marines reflect the resiliency of the country, just as his son reflects the resiliency of children.

"It's damn hard to make the decision to amputate your child," he said. "He was 6 and never really knew any different. We just want him to be a kid and have fun, which is why I encourage him to be an athlete. Now Ben is speaking to people through that photo -- it's amazing what one picture can do."

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On the Web: See the race finish on YouTube.

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