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Pendleton Marines To Come Home From Hell

Audio

Aired 3/2/11

The 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment is preparing to come home from Helmand Province in Afghanistan. They have been there for seven months in searing heat and freezing temperatures and have seen more casualties than any other similar sized battalion in the 10-year-war.

Since September, Marines of the 3rd Battalion/5th Regiment out of Camp Pendleton has been in Afghanistan. For most of that time they've been in Helmand province, engaging Taliban fighters and taking heavy casualties. And it's because the 3/5 has seen more casualties than most other battalions in Afghanistan that the Marine Corps is launching an unprecedented support effort upon their return in April. Officials say they are surging health professionals to Camp Pendleton, to try out a new approach to post-combat care.

GUEST: Mark Walker, reporter, North County Times

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Since September, marines of the third battalion 5th regiment out of Camp Pendleton have been in Afghanistan. For most of that time of course they have been in Helmand province engaging Taliban fighters and taking heavy casualties of it's because the Three-Five has seen more casualties than other battalions in Afghanistan that the Marine Corps is launching an unprecedented support effort upon their return in April. Officials say they are surging health professionals to Camp Pendleton to try out a new approach to post combat care. North County Times reporter, Mark Walker, writes about this new effort, and he's here to tell us more, good morning, mark. Hi, mark.

WALKER: Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, thank you for joining us this morning.

WALKER: You bet.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to tell our listeners, if they have questions or comments about the new support for returning marines, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. I'd like you to open this discussion the same way you opened your story in Sunday's North County Times. You wrote about marine lute Cameron west, he's from the Three-Five, he's back because he was badly injured in Afghanistan. Tell us his story.

WALKER: Lute west came out of Georgia, went through ROTC, graduated from college, went through the officer candidate program, became a Lt. Spend a year preparing with his unit to go to Afghanistan, deployed with the Three-Five battalion in September, was in country for about thee weeks within his platoon, they were on the third day of a parole looking for insurgents in the San gin district, on the way back to their forward operating bays what he was preparing to design a new route for his troops to work through a corn field to avoid what they suspected was going to be a Taliban ambush up ahead from where their position was, he was kneeling down a right knee when his radio operator approached him, the radio operator stepped on a hidden pressure plate, a roadside bomb, it exploded, killed the radio operated, injured Lieutenant West, taking off his leg, two of the fingers of his right-hand, peppered his body with shrapnel, he's lost vision in his right eye, although that may recover, four other marines were also injured, he returned to the United States first to Bethesda, where he was for about three weeks, then onto Balboa naval medical center west, and now is at home, living with his folks in on the other hand, and beginning his rehabilitation process. He's got about a year of rehab ahead of him. Kind of a typical story for a lot of the members of this battalion.

CAVANAUGH: One of the remarkable things about the story of Lieutenant West, is in your story, he describes himself as lucky. Lucky in comparison to what?

WALKER: In comparison to what may be of his fellow troops. The Three-Five has suffered about a hundred and 50 casualties and 25 troops killed in action, that's nearly 20 percent of the battalion has either been wounded or killed. A great many of the hundred and 50 wounded are multiple amputees, as a result of that, roadside bombs.

CAVANAUGH: Isn't it the roadside bombs that have devastated so many members of the Three-Five or is it the intensity of the fighting? What is it that's put this particular battalion at so much risk.

WALKER: Well, this battalion took over from the British, in the [CHECK AUDIO] northeastern area of Helmand, it's been described as kind of a Taliban last stand of the it was a center of drug trafficking and roadside bomb manufacturing. The British had the area for the -- about the five last five years, but they did not do a lot of patrolling outside of the wire, outside the bases, if you will. The Marine Corps made it clear when they arrived that they were gonna be much more aggressive, sending out combat patrols, hunting for the Taliban insurgency. As a result of that, commanders did predict they were likely to suffer more casualties just because of being in contact with the enemy in a lot more instances. And in fact, that's certainly played out. Some of the descriptions of San gin district was that it's just absolutely littered with roadside bombs, and that certainly has played out in the number of troops that have been wounded.

CAVANAUGH: How do these losses suffered by the Three-Five from Camp Pendleton stack up with other battalions?

WALKER: This battalion has suffered more casualties and troops killed in action than any other similarly sized Marine Corps battalion in the ten-year war.

CAVANAUGH: Wow, I'd like to remind our listeners, if they'd like to join the conversation, our number is 1-888-895-5727. I'm speaking with North County Times reporter, Mark Walker, who has written about the casualties taken by the third battalion 5th regiment out of Camp Pendleton who are still in Afghanistan, they're coming home in April. And mark, when they return home, I understand the Marine Corps plans to take special action to make sure that they have post combat care. What's gonna happen?

WALKER: Essentially, as described by Rear Admiral Forrest Faison III, he runs naval medical center west and is a former member of naval hospital Camp Pendleton, he and some of the commanders at Camp Pendleton, Major General Michael Regner being one, have designed a program where they are in fact going to embed mental health professionals with this battalion when they come home. These guys have obviously seen a hell of a lot of combat, they've seen a lot of their friends severely wounded or killed, and the effort is to make sure that these troops get the health services that they need, immediately upon their arriving back, that they're closely monitored for the next few months, and the whole effort's to stave off any development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and to, you know, treat the moral injury that troops in combat suffer as a result of their exposure to violence.

CAVANAUGH: I'm interested in the choice of word, I think it was a quote from your article, surging health professionals to Camp Pendleton to try out this new approach. Where did this concept come from? Do you know?

WALKER: I believe it was simply a conversation between Rear Admiral Faison and the commanders at Camp Pendleton stemming from initially some of the attention that mental health professionals already in Afghanistan have been paying to this battalion knowing the violence and the bloodshed that it has seen, there are mental health professionals that are -- excuse me, that are at camp leather neck in the Helmand province that deployed with the battalion, they're called Oscar teams, it's operational stress combat and readies. It's the first time these full sized teams get to the play with the battalion, and the effort there is to treat troops who show initial signs of PTSD or are having emotional struggle and treat them in the field as soon as possible to try and stave off development of full blown cases of PTSD.

CAVANAUGH: Right, what are the -- PTSD, of course, but what are the kinds of things that health professionals are gonna be looking for?

WALKER: They're also gonna be looking for some of the indicators of PTSD and the ability to sleep, anxiousness, nervousness, quick to anger, reticence to talk about, you know, the things that they've seen. Difficulty in reconnecting with family, spouses and children. That's another part of the effort they're going to make when this battalion comes home, they're going to work closely with families, they're going to work closely with school officials, they're gonna find out where each one of these -- the troops that have children, whether kids are going to school, they're gonna work with those schools to make sure the teachers and counselors at those schools are keeping an eye on those kids that make sure they're not exhibiting any sign was stress as a result to the violence their mothers or fathers have seen, when they come home.

CAVANAUGH: This does sound like comprehensive effort. Do you know how long it might go on?

WALKER: I think it'll last probably a depend six months. The way it's being described right now, is it could become a new standard of care for [CHECK AUDIO] the Marine Corps experienced over the last five years which is starting to go down, and in fact continues that downward 2010ed, and that they stay on stop of cases of PTSD and you know, troops who wind up over medicating themselves, drinking too much, getting in fights and having domestic violence kinds of issues.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with North County Times reporter, Mark Walker, about his two articles about a -- health professionals coming to Camp Pendleton in April to try out a new approach to post combat care for marines returning from the third battalion 5th regiment now in Afghanistan of let's go back, if we can, to Lieutenant West, we started out -- you started out your story with Lieutenant Cameron west. [CHECK AUDIO] how are they treating him now.

WALKER: He just got a new prosthetic leg a couple weeks ago, so he's learning how to walk on that. It's an interim leg, he lost two fingers of his right-hand in the explosion, so he's learning -- currently working with a therapist to rebuild the strength in that hand and be able to use the remaining fingers, he works out regularly down there. One of the other interesting facets of his story is he and about five other marines who were injured from the battalion get together about every 2 to 3 weeks just privately amongst themselves and kind of talk out the issues that they're feeling, that they're suffering to make sure that they, you know, are supporting each other, and kind of warding off PTSD through their own conversations with one another. And one of the interesting things, also, about Cameron is -- really good guy, very affable, very outgoing, very upbeat particularly considering his circumstances, but he also fully acknowledges that he's got anger over what happened to his particular platoon, [CHECK AUDIO] he clearly feels responsible for, you know, that death, and the other troops that were injured. And he also has -- he describes it as survivor skills.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, if any of these post combat care that's going to be going to the people in the Three-Five coming home in April, any of that for Lieutenant West or the people who are already home from that unit?

WALKER: No, it's for Lieutenant West too. And he has been seeing mental health professionals throughout his evacuation period and his stays in the hospital and he still meets occasionally down with those folks down at naval medical center west.

CAVANAUGH: You mentioned the fact that the Marines returning home from combat in Iraq and Afghan have suffered high rates of suicide, and that the Marine Corps is consider concerned about doing something about it. Besides this surge, this remains a high priority for the corps, doesn't it?

WALKER: Correct. The Marine Corps has really made, I think, tremendous strides in the last year, particularly, about trying to reach out to troops having trouble to make it clear that there truly is no stigma attached to troops who do seek help. The most recent evolution of what they're doing is called a de-stress line, it's heavily [CHECK AUDIO] 800 number staffed by military folks, peers, if you will, it's both for troops and family members to reach out, to look for help, one of the other facets of what they're gonna be doing with the Three-Five is they're gonna be developing a full list of mental health providers outside the base gates and make sure the troops know they have the opportunity to go see those folks, that that coverage -- or excuse me, that that treatment would be conferred by their military benefit, [CHECK AUDIO] giving the kind of attention and treatment that's available out there.

CAVANAUGH: Mark, it sounds as if you've gotten to know Lieutenant west a bit, at least. What does he want to do now?

WALKER: He hopes to be able to stay in the Marine Corps. A couple of years ago, the service adopted a new policy that troops injured in combat can stay in the service if they desire too if the proper job can be found. What Cameron wants to do is hopefully become an instructor. He should be eligible for promotion to captain in about a year, which is about the time he thinks the majority of his rehabilitation will be behind him. He hopes to be able to stay in the Marine Corps and go on and become an instructor.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you for telling us about this. This is it a really remarkable story, thank you mark.

WALKER: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: That's North County times reporter, Mark Walker, and you can read his story in the North County times. Coming up, the redevelopment rush at San Diego City Hall. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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