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Marines From 'Darkhorse' Battalion Reunite At Camp Pendleton

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.
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
Marines From 'Darkhorse' Battalion Reunite At Camp Pendleton GUEST:Alison St John, North County bureau reporter, KPBS

A reunion this weekend at Pendleton brought together veterans of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment , the Darkhorse Battalion. They fought in Afghanistan's and supple more casualties than any other Marine unit. KPBS Alison St. John attended the reunion and Alison welcome Dierks Glad to be here. People may remember that we reported a great deal on the 35 and the losses they suffered in Afghanistan. Remind us about what they experience. They went to an area that was very critical in Sangin profits that the province and it was a very dangerous place to push back the Taliban and. The current, debt of the Marines at the time, General. James Amos went out there and Christmas time saying I don't want them to have to withdraw even though they are suffering tremendous casualties. This is such a key area and he wins big Christmas with them. When they first went out, it was devastating. Because of the improvised explosive devices that were planted everywhere, they lost 25 people within a very short period of time. They had about 200 people injured and 35 people who lost limbs. We are talking the year 2010 and 2011. So this is the fifth time that veterans of gotten together. They got together when they first got back in 2011 for a reunion to commemorate. This had a different purpose. It was not so much to commemorate the dead as to strengthen the living I think. This was the first reunion that they had had in five years and is part of a bigger strategy that the Marine Corps is hoping to embrace. To reactivate that that he system that is absolutely key to survival when they are actually deployed but tends to fade when they get back. They are brown people who do not have a clue what they have been through. Were relatives of those who lost their lives among those who attended? Yes there were a lot of relatives there and there were several what they call old start moms or the mothers who lost their sons. One was Karen Kelly who is the wife of general John Kelly who we have actually heard him speaking on NPR. He is retired now. He lost a sundering that difficult time, Rob Kelly. She was there and she spoke a little bit about why she thought she had come to the East Coast to attend are you. Because of the loss and the numbers alone, we all have bonded. I'm very good friends with a lot of Rob's Marines and he has never been forgotten. The things they tell me about him and all these moms would say the same thing. You find out about who your child was after you lose them. He makes me very proud of the man he became. Alison tell us a little bit more about the atmosphere of this reunion and how many people actually attended? Or than 200 people signed up. I didn't count but there were a lot of people there. It was quiet, it was probably the first time many of them have been back on base. Most of them are no longer in the Marine Corps and there was a quiet spot under the trees a little bit set apart with the heel behind them. There of -- it started off really quiet and respectful and then as people started to reconnect, it became very joyous reunion for a lot of people. Tell us a little more about the -- why it is important for this group of Marines to stay in touch. You are talking about the Marine Corps wanting to reanimate the buddy system. It is interesting, some of the people I met there who had lost limbs, said that they had a much better support structure when they came home then everybody else. There were 35 of them and now want to the same hospital and spent months together in rehabilitation. You can tell just by looking that these guys had a connection. They said that that was really key for them. Those connections and that this was important for those who did not have such physically obvious injuries or things that they were dealing with. Many of whom disappeared off into the civilian world and had nobody who knew what they had been through. So they felt this was very valuable to be able to actually building up again and encouraging people to stay in touch. The Commandant who was or the kernel rather who was in charge of the deployment when they were in Sangin Jason Moore's -- Morris -- he challenged them to reach out and contact one or two of their buddies before the next reunion. He promised he would try to have another one next year. This is indicative of the Marine Corps's hope that perhaps this will do something to stem the tide of suicides that have occurred. As well more said, they lost 25 guys on the deployment that they have lost almost 5 people, almost -- nine people have died since they have gone back. Suicide in motorcycle accidents and car accidents. It's difficult to note how much suicidal impulses may have been behind us. This is just too many people for them to be losing after they get back. I think this is what has made the Marine Corps look at well what can we do to re-strengthen that what he system that was so effective when they were deployed. You have given us a really good idea of what this whole reunion was like Alison, thank you so much. I have been speaking with KPBS North Bureau chief Alison St. John. Thanks a lot. My pleasure.

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.

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.
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.”

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.
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.”