'Darkhorse' Battalion And The Afghan War
12:40 pm
Mon October 31, 2011

An Afghan Hell On Earth For 'Darkhorse' Marines

Originally published on Fri November 4, 2011 2:55 pm

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.

Second of seven parts

The Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment remember Sangin in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province as different from anywhere else they'd fought.

Sgt. Daniel Robert describes it as "hell." Lance Cpl. Jake Romo calls it "the Wild West." Lt. Col. Jason Morris says he'd heard it described as "the most dangerous place in Afghanistan."

Morris was the commander of the Marines of the 3/5, known as "Darkhorse," and Sangin had been a battleground long before he arrived.

The British were there for four years, but could only fight the Taliban to a bloody stalemate. Now the British were leaving, and Darkhorse battalion moved in.

Morris' orders were clear: Eliminate the Taliban as a threat.

"The fight initially was to be able to maneuver outside the patrol base without getting shot or stepping on [an improvised explosive device, or IED] that had been planted 50 yards or 100 yards outside of the patrol base. You could not move outside of the district center without getting shot," Morris recalls.

Arriving in late September 2010, they learned the place fast, slogging through canals, fighting through dense vegetation and patrolling a maze of narrow dirt roads bordered by 15-foot mud walls.

Saying Goodbye

A few weeks earlier in California, the Marines gathered to say goodbye to their families in the middle of the night at the parade grounds at Camp Pendleton, where the unit was based.

Ashley Tawney was there with her husband, Sgt. Ian Tawney; they had known each other since they were kids. They had just bought a house, and Ashley was pregnant with their first child.

Sangin was Ian's fifth deployment. Ashley says this one felt different.

"I just remember driving in the car, and I would just say, 'I don't want you to go,' and he said, 'No, I'll be fine. I need to go and I want to go.' And he always said, 'If you're on the varsity team, why sit on the bench?' " Ashley recalls.

Ian had served in Iraq. In Afghanistan, he would lead his own squad.

They stood for hours that night at Pendleton. Then, just before sunrise, it was time to say goodbye. Ashley kissed her husband.

"He said, 'I love you,' and I just nodded, and I didn't want to start crying by saying it," she says.

Sgt. Tawney boarded the bus that would take him to his plane for the long flight to Afghanistan.

The Dying Begins Almost Immediately

A few weeks later in Afghanistan, Tawney led his men on a patrol. The situation was extremely dangerous: The Taliban had stockpiled weapons and poked holes in thick mud walls to use as shooting positions in order to ambush the Marines.

Tawney had just a part of the fight. For Lt. Col. Morris — the Darkhorse commander — the battle was everywhere.

"We had over a hundred firefights in the first three weeks. This is what we had trained for. The only thing that was different from what we had trained all our lives for as Marines was the IED threat," Morris says.

On Oct. 13 — the same day the 3/5 officially assumed control over the area — four Darkhorse Marines were killed when a blast ripped apart their vehicle.

The next day, some of Morris' Marines went out on a foot patrol. The initial report came in that they were taking mortar fire.

Then, Morris remembers three rapid explosions; they turned out to be three Marines stepping on IEDs in rapid succession. All three died.

In just two days, Morris lost seven of his men — more than his predecessor had lost in six months.

And the violence didn't let up. At the end of the week, another Marine was dead: Sgt. Ian Tawney. He was 25.

'I Couldn't Fathom That He Was Gone'

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, 'Oh my God, oh my God.' There's no goodbye and there's no nothing. I couldn't fathom that he was gone," she says.

What happened to Ashley Tawney was happening to other Marine families.

The Darkhorse battalion was taking horrific casualties. Back home, the emails and phone calls flew back and forth.

To calm everyone down, the Marines convened a town hall meeting, and 150 family members showed up.

"I wasn't prepared for it to be as bad as it was. I don't think any of us really thought it was going to be like it was in October," recalls Amy Murray, the wife of Capt. Patrick Murray.

"Sometimes you got off the phone, and your heart would sink," says Melissa Fromm, wife of Lt. Brad Fromm.

Says Kait Wyatt, wife of Cpl. Derek Wyatt: "It's pretty much hell on Earth for most wives, just going day to day with not knowing."

'Every Day Someone Was Dying'

October 2010 was pretty much hell on Earth for the Marines in Sangin, too.

Cpl. Marcus Chischilly stepped on an IED on Oct. 9.

"I was probably the eighth person that stepped on that same IED. It's based on luck, really," he remembers.

Capt. Chris Esrey recalls the incident in which Lance Cpl. John Sparks died. "Sparks just grabbed his machine gun and went to his rooftop ... and began to exchange fire with the insurgents when he was struck by a bullet."

There were "IEDs everywhere," says Lance Cpl. Josue Barron. "So one of my friends just stepped on one, and it got both of us."

"Every day someone was dying, or every day someone was losing a limb," he adds. "So we were just like, when are they going to stop?"

It fell to Morris, the battalion commander, to fix things.

"I was on my own for this. I mean, having to figure this out? It's up to the battalion commander," he says.

Morris pressed his company commanders to take extra care on patrol. He stepped up training: The Marines buried mock IEDs and practiced finding them. And Morris asked for reinforcements.

His bosses back at the Pentagon had a different idea. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested pulling the Marines out of Sangin for a while.

The Marines' top officer, Gen. James Amos, said "absolutely not."

"We don't do business that way. You would have broken the spirit of that battalion," Amos says.

Instead of pulling Darkhorse out, the military sent hundreds more Marines, as well as mine-clearing equipment.

Progress At A Price

Two months went by. By January, things started to get better.

Capt. Chris Esrey remembers that getting "more boots on the deck really increased our patrolling," while Sgt. Daniel Robert says it became easier for the Marines to get some rest.

The fighting let up. Morris says life returned: markets opened; children were on the streets.

Progress came at a price: 25 dead and 184 wounded, with 34 losing at least one limb over the course of the deployment. But the Marines say it was worth it.

"Every single Marine that was over there — and saw the beginning and saw the end — saw the 180-degree change in that place," Morris says. "We changed it. We changed it completely."

"It went from total war-fighting of three months to saving lives and rebuilding homes," says Sgt. John Decker.

Even Lance Cpl. Barron, who lost one eye, one leg and some of his closest friends, agrees: "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."

Remembering Those Who Were Lost

In April, back at Camp Pendleton, the survivors of Darkhorse gathered for a memorial service.

Some stood, some sat at a helicopter landing zone, a wide patch of asphalt surrounded by low brush, mountains in the distance. They faced 25 combat crosses, one for each of the dead. Helmets and weapons and combat boots sat on a wooden base.

Morris, Darkhorse's commander, stood before the families and the wounded.

"I hope you understand how much we appreciated your sons, your husbands, your brothers in life — and how much we continue to value their sacrifice and their memory. Marines, your Marines, these Marines — they took the fight to the enemy, and they won," he told them.

As the wind kicked up, they called the names of the Marines who were lost.

Ashley Tawney was there with her infant daughter, Claire — born three months after her father died — and remembers looking out at the crowd.

"Just seeing all the people that this deployment had affected, all the wounded, just the loss is just, like, overwhelming. And it kind of felt like his work funeral. He'll never get up when it's dark outside and drive to work and come home late. And our life down there was over. That chapter was over," she says.

Ashley is starting a new chapter. She plans to move to North Carolina. Her mother lives there. And it's not far from the Marine base at Camp Lejeune.

"Being part of that Marine family, you feel real secure. It's hard, because I still longed for that, I still wanted to be part of that life, but I didn't have him anymore, and he was my connection to that life," Ashley says. "I'm still a military widow, but then I'm not — I'm back in civilian life again, so it's hard to know where to fit in."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with the story of a single Marine unit. They call themselves Darkhorse. The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment - nearly 1,000 enlisted men and officers - deployed to Afghanistan one year ago. By the time their seven-month tour ended, they had suffered the highest casualty rate of any Marine unit in the entire war.

Talk to the Marines of the Darkhorse Battalion now, and you hear the same thing: It was worth it. But talk to their wives and families, and you hear a more complicated story. All this week, we'll be telling the story of the Darkhorse Battalion, both at war and on the home front.

We begin today with NPR's Tom Bowman. First, a word of warning: This story contains strong language.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

TOM BOWMAN: These are the sounds of Sangin, in southern Afghanistan. The Marines learned the place fast. They slogged through canals, fought through dense vegetation, and patrolled a maze of narrow, dirt roads bordered by 15-foot mud walls. It was October one year ago. The Marines who served there remember Sangin as different from anywhere else they've fought. Listen to how three of them describe the place. Sergeant Daniel Robert.

Sergeant DANIEL ROBERT: Hell.

BOWMAN: Lance Corporal Jake Romo.

Lance Corporal JAKE ROMO: The Wild West.

BOWMAN: Lieutenant Colonel Jason Morris.

Lieutenant Colonel JASON MORRIS: Dangerous. I've heard it described as the most dangerous place in Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: Colonel Morris, that last voice, was the commander of 3/5 Marines. Sangin had been a battleground long before Colonel Morris arrived. The British were there for four years, but could only fight the Taliban to a bloody stalemate. Now, the British were leaving. Darkhorse Battalion moved in.

Morris' orders were clear. Eliminate the Taliban as a threat.

MORRIS: The fight, initially, was to be able to maneuver outside of your patrol base without getting shot or stepping on an IED that had been planted 50 yards or 100 yards outside of the patrol base.

BOWMAN: It was mid-October 2010.

ASHLEY TAWNEY: We had to be there at 1 o'clock in the morning.

BOWMAN: Just a few weeks earlier, in California, it's before the mission started. The Marines gathered to say goodbye to their families in the middle of the night at the parade grounds at Camp Pendleton.

TAWNEY: The buses came, and we kind of waited around for awhile.

BOWMAN: Ashley Tawney was there with her husband, Sergeant Ian Tawney. Ashley and Ian had known each other since they were kids. Ashley was pregnant with their first child. Sangin was the fifth deployment for Sergeant Tawney. Ashley says this one felt different.

TAWNEY: I just remember driving in the car, and I would just kind of say, I just don't want you to go. And he's like, well, I'll be fine, you know, and I need to go and I want to go. And he always said, if you're on the varsity team, why sit on the bench?

BOWMAN: Sergeant Tawney had served in Iraq. Now, in Afghanistan, he would lead his own squad. They stood for hours that night at Pendleton. Then just before sunrise, it was time to say goodbye. Ashley Tawney kissed her husband.

TAWNEY: He said, I love you. And I just kind of like, nodded because I didn't want to like, start to cry by saying it.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Tawney boarded the bus that would take him to his plane for the long flight to Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

BOWMAN: A few weeks later, Sergeant Tawney led his men on a patrol.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEN TALKING)

BOWMAN: That was his voice. It's from a video sent home to Ashley. Here's what Tawney's patrol was up against: The Taliban had stockpiled arms; poked holes in thick, mud walls to ambush the Marines. Sergeant Tawney had just a part of the fight. For Colonel Morris, the Darkhorse commander, the battle was everywhere.

MORRIS: We had over a hundred firefights in the first three weeks. This is what we had trained for. The only thing that really was different from what we had trained all our lives for, as Marines, was the IED threat.

BOWMAN: IEDs, roadside bombs. On October 13th, four Marines from Darkhorse were killed when their vehicle was torn apart by a blast. The next day, some of Morris' Marines went out on a foot patrol.

MORRIS: The initial report came in that they were taking mortar fire.

BOWMAN: Here's what Colonel Morris remembers.

MORRIS: I mean, a rapid womf(ph), womf, womf of explosions. What it turned out to be was three guys stepping on IEDs in rapid succession.

BOWMAN: All three Marines were killed. In just two days, Morris lost seven of his men - more than his predecessor had lost in six months. And it didn't let up. At the end of the week, another Marine was dead - Sergeant Ian Tawney. He was 25.

TAWNEY: At our house we just bought, we had these - a lot of French doors, with windows in them.

BOWMAN: Ashley Tawney remembers waking up from a nap on her couch. Through the glass of the French doors, she watched two Marine officers pass by. She didn't have to open the door to see them standing there.

TAWNEY: And it was just a real solemn - just very eerie sight. And it's just like the movies. Just like the movies. And I just remember saying, oh, shit.

BOWMAN: To this day, she doesn't know how she made it to the front door.

TAWNEY: It felt like I - like, floated over there or something, or it was like being propelled towards the door. 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. Went and sat down on the couch. And I remember my cat was like, 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 hands. And I was like, oh, my God. Oh, my God. And there's no goodbye, and there's no nothing. I couldn't fathom it, that he was gone.

BOWMAN: What happened to Ashley Tawney was happening to other Marine families. The emails and phone calls flew back and forth. To calm everyone down, the Marines convened a town hall meeting. Listen to what the wives remember about that time. Amy Murray.

AMY MURRAY: I was not prepared for it to be as bad as it was. I don't think any of us really thought it was going to be like it was in October.

BOWMAN: Melissa Fromm.

MELISSA FROMM: Sometimes, you got off the phone and your heart would sink.

BOWMAN: Kait Wyatt.

KAIT WYATT: It's pretty much hell on earth for most wives, just going day to day with not knowing.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING, GUNSHOTS)

BOWMAN: It was pretty much hell on earth for the Marines in Sangin, too. Here's how some of them remember October 2010. Corporal Marcus Chischilly.

Corporal MARCUS CHISCHILLY: My date of injury was October 9th. I stepped on an IED. I was probably the eighth person that walked over that same IED.

BOWMAN: Captain Chris Esrey.

Captain CHRIS ESREY: You know, Sparks just grabbed his machine gun, and went to the rooftop and began to exchange fire with the insurgents when he was struck by a bullet.

BOWMAN: Lance Corporal Josue Baron.

Lance Corporal JOSUE BARON: There's IEDs everywhere, and you just don't know where they're at. So one of my friends just stepped on one, and it got both of us. We had so many that every day, someone was dying. Or every day, someone was losing a limb. It was just like, when are they going to stop?

BOWMAN: It fell to Colonel Morris to fix things.

MORRIS: I was on my own for this. I mean, having to figure this out, it's up to the battalion commander.

BOWMAN: He pressed his company commanders to take extra care on patrol. He stepped up training. The Marines buried mock IEDs and practiced finding them. And Morris did one more thing. He asked for reinforcements. His bosses back at the Pentagon had a different idea. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested pulling the Marines out of Sangin for a while.

General JAMES AMOS: It officially came to me and I said, absolutely not.

BOWMAN: That's General Jim Amos, the top officer in the Marine Corps.

AMOS: We don't do business that way. You'd have broken the spirit of that battalion.

BOWMAN: Instead of pulling Darkhorse out, the military sent hundreds more Marines in and also, mine-clearing equipment. Two months went by. The fighting let up. Colonel Morris said life returned. Markets opened; children were on the streets.

But progress came at a price. The battalion lost 25 dead, 184 wounded - 34 of them lost at least one limb. Ask the Marines, and they say it was worth it. Colonel Morris.

MORRIS: Every single Marine that was over there and saw the beginning and saw the end, or saw four months later, saw the 180-degree change.

BOWMAN: Sergeant John Decker.

Sergeant JOHN DECKER: It went from total war-fighting for three months to saving lives, rebuilding homes.

BOWMAN: Lance Corporal Josue Baron - he lost one eye, one leg, and some of his closest friends.

BARON: It was worth it because if I say that it wasn't worth it, then what about my friends that died? It's like I'm disrespecting them, you know? Like saying they just died for nothing.

BOWMAN: Back at Camp Pendleton in April, the survivors of Darkhorse gathered for a memorial service.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEMORIAL SERVICE)

BOWMAN: Some stood; some sat at a helicopter landing zone, a wide patch of asphalt surrounded by low brush, the mountains in the distance. In front of them, 25 combat crosses, one for each of the dead; helmets and weapons and combat boots set on a wooden base.

Colonel Jason Morris, Darkhorse's commander, stood before the families and the wounded.

MORRIS: I hope you understand how much we appreciated your sons, your husbands, your brothers in life, and how much we continue to value their sacrifice and their memory. Marines - your Marines, these Marines, they took the fight to the enemy, and they won.

BOWMAN: As the wind kicked up, they called the roll of the Marines who were lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sergeant Tawney. Sergeant Ian Tawney. Sergeant Ian Matthew Tawney.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BOWMAN: Ashley Tawney was there as her husband's name was called out. She was holding her infant daughter, Claire, born three months after her father died. Ashley remembers looking out at the crowd.

TAWNEY: Just seeing all the people that this deployment had affected, all the wounded. Just the loss is just like, overwhelming. And it kind of felt like his work funeral, like he will never get up when it's dark outside and drive to work and come home late. And our life down there was over. That chapter was over.

BOWMAN: Ashley Tawney is starting a new chapter. She's moving to North Carolina. Her mother lives there. And she says it's not far from the Marine base at Camp LeJeune.

TAWNEY: Being part of that military - the Marine family, I guess - it's real - you feel real secure. So it's hard because I still longed for that. I still wanted to be part of that life, but I didn't have him anymore. And he was my connection to that life. I'm still a military widow, but then I'm not - like, I'm back in civilian life again. So it's hard to know where to fit in.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.