Storied Camp Pendleton Marine Unit Examines Its Legacy In Afghanistan
With the U.S. war in Afghanistan coming to an end, the Dark Horse Battalion will go down as the Marine unit which suffered the highest percentage of casualties during the 20-year war.
The group of Marines from Camp Pendleton are still trying to reconcile their legacy, a decade after they returned home.
By the time the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment left Helmand Province in April 2011, they came back with 184 wounded Marines, 34 of them amputees, then there were the 25 dead. Among them, the son of Four Star Marine Gen. John Kelly: 1st Lt. Robert Kelly was killed when he stepped on a landmine in November 2010.
In 2013, while he was in charge of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Kelly spoke at a ceremony at Camp Pendleton. He urged the Marines to honor those who served their country.
“And in many cases fought and died for it,” said Kelly, during the dedication of a memorial to the 5th Regiment’s service in Afghanistan. “And remember your buddies that never made it home.”
A decade after the survivors came home, it’s still difficult to place the legacy of the unit that suffered the highest number of casualties in the war. Logan Stark collected hours of footage shot by his fellow Marines as Dark Horse pushed back against the Taliban during heavy fighting.
“This was right in that sweet zone before the Marines started highly regulating people filming stuff.”
The 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. Stark came back that April and by August he had left the Corps and enrolled as a student at Michigan State. During that time, he started making a documentary — interviewing other members of Dark Horse. Initially, Stark says he thought he was the only one having panic attacks.
“What a lot of people did realize, and me specifically didn’t realize is, it’s OK to be going through all this,” he said. “There is 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 the most celebrated units of the war 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, back in the United States, it was like reliving that moment. It was a really big struggle to find 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.' You remember that. 'I’m going to make sure you get home.'”
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 not an every moment of every day kind of thing, I mean it's constantly in my brain and it's always there. There are some days that are horrible and there are some days that are OK,” she said.
Cartherwood struggles to explain that, if she had to do things over again, she would have still supported his decision to join the Marines.
“Because it was what he believed in,” she said.
She was in the audience when Gen. Kelly spoke at the memorial in 2013.
“After the remembrance ceremony and seeing the looks and those guys faces in their eyes, I said there's gotta be something we can do, you know, and so we moved down here,” she said.
She and her husband moved from Illinois to Springville, Tennessee where they’re building a quiet lake retreat for combat veterans in honor of the Dark Horse Battalion.
“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. But they can talk to each other and really nobody can help a combat veteran like a combat veteran,” she said.
Each bedroom is named after one of the 25 who died, with plaques for six Dark Horse 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 their monument to an ongoing sacrifice in a war that cannot easily be explained.