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Storied Camp Pendleton Marine Unit Examines Its Legacy In Afghanistan

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The Dark Horse Battalion, based at Camp Pendleton, had the highest percentage of casualties of any unit in the war.

Speaker 1: 00:00 U S involvement in the Afghanistan war is coming to an end. After 20 years, the dark horse battalion suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any Marine unit KPBS. Military reporter. Steve Walsh says the camp Pendleton Marine unit is still trying to reconcile their legacy a decade after they returned home.

Speaker 2: 00:22 By the time the dark horse battalion left Hellman province in 2011, they had 184 wounded Marines, 34 of them amputees and 25 dead among them. The son of four-star Marine general, John Kelly in 2013, before he retired, Kelly spoke at a ceremony at camp Pendleton. He urged the Marines to honor those who had served their country

Speaker 3: 00:47 And your medications flat and died for it. You never forget your buddies that never made it home.

Speaker 2: 00:53 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 star collected hours of footage shot by his fellow Marines as dark horse pushed back against the Taliban during heavy fighting

Speaker 4: 01:13 Was kind of in that little sweet zone before the Marine Corps served like highly regulating people filming stuff.

Speaker 2: 01:20 He came back 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 members of dark horse. Initially he thought he was the only one having panic attacks.

Speaker 4: 01:34 And that's what I think a lot of people just didn't. And me specifically, I didn't understand. It's like, it's okay to be going through all this, like there's there's reasons behind all of it. And it just didn't seem like we were like really good at communicating that to our peers.

Speaker 2: 01:49 His documentary called for the 25 is still on his YouTube channel. Even the veterans of the most celebrated units of the war have had a tough time describing the war in Afghanistan. Marcus just chilly lost his left leg to an IED two weeks after we arrived

Speaker 5: 02:05 Every day for that first year, when I was back back in the United States was like reliving that moment. It was a, it was a really big struggle to try to figure out, you know, what my life was going to be like after that, after two years

Speaker 2: 02:17 In the hospital, he is now married with small children and walking on a prosthetic. We were there

Speaker 5: 02:22 To protect each other. We were there to bring each other home. We were there to fight yes for our country and to accomplish our mission. But every single day was about, I got you. Like you remember brother, I'm going to make sure you get home today.

Speaker 2: 02:36 Gretchen Katherine Woodson Alec was killed in October, 2010.

Speaker 4: 02:41 It's it's not an every moment of every day kind of thing. I mean, it's, 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 okay.

Speaker 2: 02:53 She was in the audience when general Kelly spoke at the Memorial in 2013

Speaker 4: 02:58 After remembrance ceremony and seeing the looks on those guys' faces in their eyes. I said, there's gotta be something we can do.

Speaker 2: 03:04 She and her husband moved from Illinois to Tennessee where they're building a quiet lake retreat for combat veterans to honor the dark horse battalion. I don't want

Speaker 4: 03:12 To tell your wife or your mother or your sister or some of your friends from high school, what you experienced, what you had to do. Um, but they can talk to each other and really nobody can help a combat veteran like a combat veteran.

Speaker 2: 03:26 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

Speaker 4: 03:34 That they are a casualty of war every single bit, as much as those who were killed in action

Speaker 2: 03:39 Or it's their monument to an ongoing sacrifice in a war that cannot easily be explained.

Speaker 1: 03:48 Joining me is KPBS military reporter, Steve Walsh, and Steve

Speaker 2: 03:52 Welcome. Hi Maureen. What made the deployment

Speaker 1: 03:55 Of the dark horse battalion so dangerous and deadly what was happening in Helmand province at the time?

Speaker 2: 04:01 So the British had been there prior to the U S Marine. So, and they had set up outposts all around the area, but they really didn't have the numbers to hold all of those positions. So they took a large number of casualties. Even before the Marines got there. Then the Marines come in, they decide they're going to be much more aggressive. They consolidate their positions and they start running regular patrols to seek out contact with the enemy. But the Taliban were well dug in. They understood the terrain and this was kind of a crossroad. So the Taliban could go in and out of other parts of the region. So this was very important for them to hold this area. So the fighting was already well underway by the time the Marines got there and the Taliban were well positioned and they had alliances in the area. So it was, it was incredibly deadly Marines

Speaker 1: 04:49 Of the three-five. Were they prepared for what they would encounter or was the Taliban resistance stronger than they expected?

Speaker 2: 04:56 They definitely knew that this was an area of strong resistance and they were warned by the British. Um, they wanted to retake this area from the Taliban and hold it, which they eventually did. And when the Marines finally left the area, they, it did eventually fall back into the hands of the Taliban, which kind of complicates their legacy. But over the time that the tactics had changed, you know, we, we talked to Marcus in the feature. He was wounded by an IED that was actually made out of wood. So would not be picked up by American mind detectors. These IDs were originally used in Iraq, but they eventually had moved over to Afghanistan as the two insurgencies began, swapping personnel and tactics to help fight the, uh, American troops in

Speaker 1: 05:35 A previous report. You said that the war in Afghanistan never really registered among the American public, the way the war in Iraq did is that one of the reasons securing the legacy of the dark horse battalion is so difficult.

Speaker 2: 05:49 Yeah, I think so. So from a pure fighting standpoint, it was a costly, but a tactical success at the time they did beat back the Taliban. So from the perspective of some people, the dark horse ranks right up there with, uh, the battles of the Pacific or, or Bella would in world war one or the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq, some of the most story battles in Marine Corps history on the flip side, it's, it's kind of harder to put this into the con you know, context of the larger conflict. The Marines held their position, but they couldn't defeat the Taliban. It was quite costly with 184 casualties and, and 25 dead. You know, it's the eternal lesson from Vietnam. You can push the Germans out of Poland, but you really can't push the Vietnamese out of Vietnam. And that's really what was happening here in Afghanistan. Tell us

Speaker 1: 06:38 More, if you will, about the former doc Horace battalion Marines, who died by a suicide, you say that there have been six that have died that way,

Speaker 2: 06:47 Right? Uh, Gretchen Katherine Wood who runs the dark horse launcher that building this in Tennessee is kind of a refuge for combat veterans. She lost her 19 year old son, Eric, and she's kind of kept a tally. She and her husband stay in pretty close contact with a number of the unit. And they kind of, sort of, sort of hear from word of mouth, like when somebody has died, you know, we have seen an elevated risk of suicide among active duty military. Since the war on terror began, it used to be the other way around military service actually used to make you less susceptible to suicide. Um, now it's a risk factor and it's, you know, it's not necessarily tied to combat exposure or deployment. I can tell you that, uh, gun ownership really plays a role in veteran suicide. You can tell from other members of the dark horse that they suffered from, we'll call it stress. When they came back home, maybe undiagnosed PTSD, nightmares, and anxiety. These risk factors can lead to suicide. If, if left unchecked, you mentioned

Speaker 1: 07:45 That couple who are building a retreat for combat veterans. And it leads me to wonder what kind of resources are there for Marines from this unit or others who are still suffering the effects of fighting in Afghanistan?

Speaker 2: 07:58 There are a lot actually though, a Marines do not always make the easiest patients. In fact, several members of the dark horse. It just sounds like they may have gone to the VA here or there, but they really seem to benefit more from talking to one another. Uh, you know, the VA in San Diego created the first program for PTSD geared specifically to post nine 11 veterans who didn't like the group therapy. That was the hallmark of treating, uh, the earlier Vietnam vets. And some of the treatments really have, especially over the last 20 years, they they've evolved pretty dramatically.

Speaker 1: 08:33 You know, we've heard some disturbing stories coming out of Afghanistan lately. There are reports of Taliban advances, Taliban atrocities, the U S airstrikes are trying to keep the situation in check. You reported last month on the struggle to get Afghan interpreters who worked for the U S out of harm's way and out of the country, I'm wondering, how does this aftermath, this complicated aftermath increase the confusing legacy of this 20 year war.

Speaker 2: 09:01 So we know now that there are some plans to bring interpreters to the east coast, to finish their paperwork. You know, we have 18,000 interpreters have applied, but we know that many more people work with the Americans and either never applied or gave up somewhere in the process. We've heard the number of like 30,000 people are trying to flee that number could perhaps go way up as you know, the Americans. Finally, the last of them leave, you know, you hear echoes of the fall of Saigon. You know, at the end of the American war in Vietnam, we may see a similar humanitarian crisis unfolding and which may be a tremendous moral embarrassment to the United States. After 20 years of war, this is what we're going to be learning now over the next several months, just what that legacy is going to look like.

Speaker 1: 09:50 I've been speaking with KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh. Steve. Thank you. Thanks Marie.

Speaker 6: 10:02 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.