Their Unit Lost Dozens Of Marines In Afghanistan. Now, Survivors Struggle With The War's Legacy.
The Darkhorse Battalion, based at Camp Pendleton, is the Marine unit which suffered the highest percentage of casualties during the 20-year war.
By the time the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment left Helmand Province in April 2011, 25 Marines were dead, and 184 were wounded — 34 of them amputees.
Among the dead was the son of Four Star Marine Gen. John Kelly. First Lt. Robert Kelly was killed when he stepped on a landmine in November 2010. In 2013, while Gen. Kelly was in charge of U.S. Southern Command, he spoke during a ceremony at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. He urged the Marines to honor those who served their country.
“Never forget your buddies that never made it home,” said Kelly, during the dedication of a memorial to the 5th Regiment’s service in Afghanistan.
A decade after the survivors came home, it’s still difficult to place the legacy of the unit in the long running war. The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment — nicknamed "Darkhorse" — suffered the highest casualties in the war.
Logan Stark collected hours of footage shot by his fellow Marines as Darkhorse pushed back against the Taliban during heavy fighting. The U.S. Marines had taken over from the British, who had suffered heavy casualties themselves as they tried to keep the area out of the hands of the Taliban.
“This was kind of in that little sweet zone before the Marines started highly regulating people filming stuff,” Stark said.
Stark came home that April, and by August he had left the Corps and enrolled as a student at Michigan State. During that whirlwind, he started making a documentary — interviewing other members of Darkhorse.
Initially, Stark said he thought he was the only one having panic attacks.
“What I think a lot of people and me specifically didn’t understand is it’s OK to be going through all this,” he said. “There are reasons behind all of it. It just didn’t seem like we were really good at communicating that to our peers.”
His documentary called “For the 25” is still on his YouTube Channel.
Even the veterans of one of its most celebrated units have a tough time describing the war in Afghanistan. Marcus Chischilly lost his left leg to an IED two weeks after he arrived.
“Every day for that first year, when I was back in the United States, it was like reliving that moment. It was a really big struggle to figure out what my life was going to be like after that,” he said.
After two years in the hospital, he is now married with small children and walking on a prosthetic.
“We were there to protect each other,” he said. “We were there to fight, yes for our country and to accomplish our mission, but every single day was about 'I got you,'" he said. "You remember that. I’m going to make sure you get home today.”
Gretchen Catherwood’s son Alec was killed in October 2010. Alec joined the Marines out of high school. After boot camp, his unit was prepared to go to Afghanistan.
“It's constantly in my brain and it's always there," Catherwoood said about her son's death. "There are some days that are horrible, and there are some days that are okay."
Cartherwood struggles to explain that, if she had to do things over again, she would have still supported Alec's decision to join the Marines.
“Because it was what he believed in,” she said.
She was in the audience when Gen. Kelly spoke at Camp Pendleton in 2013.
“After the remembrance ceremony, and seeing the looks and those guys' faces and in their eyes, I said there's got to be something we can do,” she said.
She and her husband moved from Illinois to Springville, Tennessee, where they’re building a quiet lake retreat in honor of the Darkhorse Battalion. It will be a place where combat veterans can get away and talk with each other.
“You don’t want to tell your wife or your mother or your sister or some of your friends from high school what you experienced or what you had to do," Cartherwood said. "But they can talk to each other. Really nobody can help a combat veteran like a combat veteran,” she said.
Each bedroom is named after one of the 25 who died. The retreat also displays plaques for the six Darkhorse Marines who have since died by suicide.
“I believe that they are a casualty of war, every single bit as much as those who were killed in action,” she said.
It’s a monument to an ongoing sacrifice in a war that cannot easily be explained.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.