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Marines From ‘Darkhorse’ Battalion Reunite At Camp Pendleton

Photo by Alison St John

From left, Carlos Garcia, Derek Goodridge and Michael Spivey reunite at Camp Pendleton for a "Darkhorse" Battalion reunion, April 29, 2016. All lost limbs to improvised explosive devices while fighting in Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

The "Darkhorse" Battalion — the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment — suffered more casualties during the war in Afghanistan than any other Marine Corps unit. Many of the survivors reunited Friday and Saturday at Camp Pendleton.

Marines From 'Darkhorse' Battalion Reunite At Camp Pendleton

GUEST:

Alison St John, North County bureau reporter, KPBS

Transcript

Among those who gathered Friday under the trees at a quiet spot on base was Karen Kelly, wife of Gen. John Kelly and one of the mothers whose son never came back from Afghanistan. First Lt. Robert Kelly was among the 25 killed during the seven-month deployment in Sangin in Helmand province between 2010 and 2011.

“Because of the loss — just the numbers alone — we all have bonded,” Kelly said. “I’m very good friends with a lot of Rob’s Marines and he’s just never forgotten. The things that they tell me about him — and all these moms would say the same thing — you really find out about who your child was, after you lose them. And he makes me very proud of the man he became.”

Almost 200 members of the unit were injured — 35 of them lost limbs, mostly due to improvised explosive devices.

Michael Spivey is missing his left arm, though he doesn’t let that stop him: He’s competing for a spot in snowboarding at the Paralympics. He spent much of his time at the reunion with buddies who are also missing limbs. He said in some ways, keeping connected to his friends after they returned from Afghanistan was easier for him than it is for those who were not physically injured.

Photo by Alison St John

Karen Kelly, who lost her son, 1st Lt. Rob Kelly, in Afghanistan in 2010, attends a reunion at Camp Pendleton of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment known as the "Darkhorse" Battalion, April 29, 2016.

“A lot of us got injured so we all went to the same hospital. So we had that built-in camaraderie, so we sill keep in touch,” Spivey said. “But a lot of the guys at the unit — as soon as they got back, they were going to a different unit. Or they would get out and nobody really knew what was going on."

Even though the Taliban are now making inroads again in Sangin where he lost his arm, Spivey said it was worth it.

“Because there’s a generation now that actually got to go to school and their families got to farm,” Spivey said. “And put in plants that they wanted to, instead of something that someone else made them plant because they wanted to have a foot in the drug trade. Once you get that little bit of taste, that generation is going to be like, ‘This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. When we were kids, were able to do what we wanted.’ Hopefully that’ll create a drive in them to take over for their own country.”

Col. Jason Morris led the Darkhorse Battalion during its deployment conducting counterinsurgency operations in Sangin. He presided over the reunion and told the assembled Marines and family members that they have much to be proud of.

“It was the first time, after we were done, that the Afghans had had the opportunity to live out from under the strangle hold of the Taliban for some 20 years," Morris said. "We went there to fight and we did. We kicked ass.”

Photo by Alison St John

Col. Jason Morris stands by a memorial wall at Camp Pendleton for the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, April 29, 2016. Morris led the unit known as the "Darkhorse" Battalion during their deployment in Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2010.

Standing under a tree as the crowd gathered to eat barbecue, Morris said one of the reasons he wanted to attend the reunion is because the unit has lost more members since they returned.

“That’s why we decided we need to get the guys together,” Morris said. “We have had three or four suicides over the last four or five years — some of them, people didn’t even know about. Maybe squad mates knew about it, but we’re trying to energize our communication networks and those same relationships, to make sure we don’t have people falling though the cracks.”

Morris said Marine Commandant Bob Neller is encouraging reunions like this one as a kind of pilot project, to build better support networks for Marines and families dealing with the aftermath of their experiences.

“We’re trying to facilitate getting them together and rebuilding those relationships that they had during what was probably the defining moment of their lives,” Morris said. “We really hope that that acts as an emotional buffer for them, if they’re having a problem, (because) we don’t want to lose any more.”

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