From September 27, 2010, to April 11, 2011, the approximately 1,000 Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, based at Camp Pendleton, and known as the “Darkhorse” Battalion, suffered the loss of 25 men in the Sangin district of Helmand province in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. An estimated 470 enemy fighters were killed. A favorable ratio to be sure, but still 495 deaths too many.
Beginning this past October 30 and ending on November 5, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman did a seven-part series for All Things Considered on the Darkhorse Battalion called “u2018Darkhorse’ Battalion and the Afghan War.” Here is how the series was introduced:
A year ago, nearly 1,000 U.S. Marine officers and enlisted men of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment deployed to restive Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. By the time their tour ended in April 2011, the Marines of the 3/5 – known as “Darkhorse” – suffered the highest casualty rate of any Marine unit during the past 10 years of war. This week, NPR tells the story of this unit’s seven long months at war – both in Afghanistan and back home.
Disgust, anger, sorrow, pity – this is how I felt after listening to some of the shows in the series. I recently listened to the whole series as well as a 50-minute version. A timeline of the deadly Afghan mission is online here. The seven shows with their descriptions as provided by NPR are as follows:
“Afghan Success Carries A Price For Commander,” October 30
In Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Jason Morris led the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, which suffered the highest casualty rate of any Marine unit during the past 10 years of war. The “Darkhorse Battalion” commander says the unit’s mission was a success – but he will live with the burden of those deaths.
“An Afghan Hell On Earth For u2018Darkhorse’ Marines,” October 31
October 31, 2011 A year ago, the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment arrived in Sangin, a Taliban haven in southern Afghanistan, for a seven-month deployment. Known as “Darkhorse,” the battalion sustained a higher casualty rate than any other Marine unit during the 10-year Afghan war.
“As Casualties Grew, So Did Marine Families’ Fears,” November 1
When the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment deployed to Afghanistan, they left behind families who were desperate for information and grew frightened as the death toll grew. For 25 families, the news they received was the worst possible.
“Strategy Behind A Marine Unit’s Dangerous Mission,” November 2
The Marines of Darkhorse Battalion suffered a high rate of casualties during their seven-month deployment to southern Afghanistan. Their mission was to go after the Taliban in a place called Sangin – a crossroads of insurgency and drug trafficking. At the time, officials in the military and all the way up to the secretary of defense asked why the Darkhorse Battalion was taking so many casualties. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is reporting all week on the battalion. On Wednesday, he speaks with Guy Raz about the strategy in Sangin: whether the Marines made mistakes and what they did to reduce causalities and complete the mission.
“A Marine’s Death, And The Family He Left Behind,” November 3
November 3, 2011 When Marine Cpl. Derek Wyatt left for Afghanistan, his wife, Kait, was pregnant with their first child. Three months later, Derek was dead. A day after his death, Kait was induced, so she could give birth and attend his funeral.
“For Wounded Marines, The Long, Hard Road Of Rehab,” November 4
Dozens of Marines from Darkhorse Battalion returned home with missing limbs and other injuries that will last a lifetime. Learning to cope with their injuries and figure out their futures is a slow, arduous process.
“The Darkhorse Battalion and the Afghan War,” November 5
This past week, All Things Considered has been sharing stories about the Darkhorse Battalion – that’s the Marine unit that suffered the highest casualty rate of any Marine unit during the 10-year Afghan war. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman wraps up the series today, as he tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan about some of the people he met – both on the battlefield and on the home front.
Here are the names of the fallen from the Darkhorse Battalion. Most were in their twenties.
Oct. 8, 2010: Lance Cpl. John Sparks
Oct. 13, 2010: Lance Cpl. Joseph Rodewald, Lance Cpl. Phillip Vinnedge, Cpl. Justin Cain and Pfc. Victor Dew
Oct. 14, 2010: Lance Cpl. Alec Catherwood, Lance Cpl. Irvin Ceniceros and Lance Cpl. Joseph Lopez
Oct. 15, 2010: Lance Cpl. James Boelk
Oct. 16, 2010: Sgt. Ian Tawney
Nov. 4, 2010: Lance Cpl. Matthew Broehm and Lance Cpl. Brandon Pearson
Nov. 6, 2010: Lance Cpl. Randy Braggs
Nov. 9, 2010: 1st Lt. Robert Kelly
Nov. 10, 2010: Lance Cpl. James Stack
Nov. 24, 2010: Lance Cpl. Arden Buenagua
Nov. 25, 2010: 1st Lt. William Donnelly
Dec. 2, 2010: Sgt. Matthew Abbate
Dec. 6, 2010: Cpl. Derek Wyatt and Pfc. Colton Rusk
Dec. 7, 2010: Sgt. Jason Peto
Dec. 17, 2010: Lance Cpl. Jose Maldonado
Dec. 24, 2010: Lance Cpl. Kenneth Corzine
Dec. 28, 2010: Cpl. Tevan Nguyen
Jan. 20, 2011: Sgt. Jason Amores
In addition to the 25 Marines that died in Helmand province, there were 184 that were badly wounded, including 34 that lost limbs.
But I want to focus, not on what the Marines of the Darkhorse Battalion endured in Afghanistan, but on what they did to their families back home. In case you don’t have the time to listen, here are some excerpts from the NPR series:
Back home, the families were frantic, wondering what was happening. Morris’ wife, Jane Conwell, started getting a hundred emails each day. One wife was convinced she heard the doorbell ring in the middle of the night, that Marine officers were there to announce her husband’s death. “The families, especially the spouses, really almost lost their minds,” Morris says.
At home in California, Ashley Tawney remembers waking up from a nap on her couch. It was the middle of an October afternoon. The house she and Ian had recently bought had several French doors. Through the glass of one of them, she watched two Marine officers pass by. She didn’t have to open the door to see them standing there. “It was just a real solemn … very eerie sight. It’s just like the movies, just like the movies,” she recalls. To this day, she doesn’t know how she made it to the front door. “I, like, floated over there or something,” she says. “And everything was kind of in slow-motion. And I opened the door, and then they started off with the whole spiel … and I was just in shock.” “I remember my cat was playing with the chaplain’s uniform. … Then they started to do the paperwork … the whole, me going to Dover to meet his body, and that’s when it hit me, and I just covered my face with my hand and was like, u2018Oh my God, oh my God.’ There’s no goodbye and there’s no nothing. I couldn’t fathom that he was gone,” she says.
“It was just talking about an IED explosion and how many people were injured. There was one KIA. I remember making the comment to some of my colleagues, like, wow, my son’s unit, somebody died, that really hits close to home,” he recalls. Boelk went about his day. Five hours went by. “Then I got a call from our daughter. And she said there were two Marines at our house, and immediately, kind of lost my composure at work, obviously. There was just total silence in the office. Of course, what can they say? I just shut off my computers and picked up my bags, and told them I had to go home,” Boelk says.
Last year, on Dec. 6, Kait Wyatt was up early, making breakfast, when the doorbell rang at her home on the Camp Pendleton Marine base. She opened the door. Two Marines stood there. “I wanted it to be them telling me that he was OK, that he was hurt or something along those lines. But I knew,” Kait recalls. “I automatically knew Derek had passed away,” she says. Her husband, Cpl. Derek Wyatt, was serving in Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, known as “Darkhorse.” Kait was pregnant: She was due to give birth in just a couple of weeks, in mid-December. The Marines began the ritual, and Kait, who was 22 at the time, began to sob.
“Liam was sleeping, and I got the phone call. u2018Is this Mrs. Romo … Jacob Romo’s wife?’ And I knew right away who it was,” she said. “I started to hyperventilate, and I need to breathe because I’m pregnant. And the guy was very sweet, he was so sweet. All I needed to get out was, u2018Is he alive?’ u2018Yes, he’s alive.’ And I could calm down and take a couple of breaths.” The Marine who called her was reading from a statement – something about a bilateral amputee. At first, she wasn’t sure what that meant. And then she was told his legs were gone.
So we talked to some of these wives, and, you know, some of them would wake up in the middle of the night thinking a doorbell rang, thinking there were Marine officers there to say that their husband had been killed. It’s very, very difficult for them. So I think that’s what surprised me the most.
Marines, why do you do this to your families?
Based on the words of various Marines interviewed or talked about in this series, I say to those who made it through what I wish I could also say to twenty-five young men who didn’t:
If you just wanted to feel the trill of leading men in battle, then shame on you. If you just couldn’t find a job so you enlisted in the Marines, then shame on you. If you just wanted to experience the mental and physical challenge, then shame on you. If you just enlisted because your father was a Marine, then shame on you. If you just wanted to go to war, then shame on you. If you just thought you were defending our freedoms, then shame on you. If you just wanted to die a hero, then shame on you. If you just felt you had to complete the mission, then shame on you. If you just enlisted because you thought your government needed you, then shame on you. If you thought there was just no better job than being a Marine, then shame on you.
I have no doubt that the Marines of the Darkhorse Battalion fought valiantly. I am not questioning their manhood, courage, or determination. But I also have no doubt that each of the deaths of those twenty-five Marines from the Darkhorse Battalion was preventable, unnecessary, and senseless.
Lance Cpl. Josue Barron, who lost an eye, a leg, and some of his close friends, at the end of a discussion about whether everything that happened in Afghanistan was “worth it,” said: “It was worth it. If I say it wasn’t worth it, what about my friends that died? I’m disrespecting them, like they died for nothing.”
Sorry, Josue, as much as you may not want to face it, and no matter how many times you tell yourself that it was “worth it,” your friends died in vain just like those unfortunate U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq. Likewise, the only thing that the Marines in Afghanistan died for was a lie.
The most maddening and depressing thing out of all that I have heard from this series on the Darkhorse Battalion is the closing paragraph from Tom Bowman’s 50-minute report:
Darkhorse Battalion will deploy again sometime next year, but this time they’re going on what’s known as a Marine Expeditionary Unit. They’ll head on ships across the Pacific making port calls and being ready for anything from a humanitarian disaster to a rescue operation. The families are relived, but many of the Marines we spoke with just want to go back to Afghanistan.
Go back to Afghanistan? Marines, why do you do this to your families? I plead with you to heed the words of U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler (1881-1940), a two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner who came to the conclusion that:
War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.
Shame on you for putting the Marines above your families. Shame on you for making a god out of the Marines.