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'Darkhorse' Battalion And The Afghan War


All week, we've been reporting on one Marine unit. They're called Darkhorse. And they had a horrific deployment to Afghanistan about a year ago. They lost 25 Marines and many, many more were wounded.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been telling their stories. And Tom's here in the studio with me now because we wanted to learn a little bit more about these Marines and their families and how they made it through. Tom, thanks so much for joining us.


SULLIVAN: I've listened to all of your reporting this week, and I think what I've never heard before was the detail about what it's like both for the families and for the Marines in the field.

BOWMAN: Right. My producer, Amy Walters and I, we wanted to give our listeners a better sense of what happened here, why this Marine unit suffered so many casualties. But we also wanted to explore the connection between the deployed Marines and the families back home.

SULLIVAN: We got a lot of response to your series at npr.org and on Facebook. And many said bring the troops home and many were saddened by the losses, by the stories of the widows. And we contacted a few of them. Here's one of them. Her name is Emily Kelly(ph). Her husband is in the Army, and he just deployed to Afghanistan.

EMILY KELLY: The American public needs to hear more of these stories of sacrifice, pain and loss. During World War II, the entire country was at war. Everyone knew someone who had been killed or wounded in action. Today, less than two percent of our countrymen and women serve in the military and it increasingly appears that only their families and close friends even realize that there's actually a war that we're losing men and women and weekly. Thank you, NPR, for telling stories like this well, with respect and simply for remembering that many of us sacrifice so much for a country that has largely forgotten us.

SULLIVAN: Tom, I just want to get your reaction to that.

BOWMAN: Well, you know, it's funny. That's a theme you often hear from Marines and soldiers and their families that very few people serve today, and there's really no shared sacrifice at all, like you saw during World War II.

SULLIVAN: Was there anything in the series that surprised you in your reporting?

BOWMAN: Well, I've spent a fair amount of time in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the field with soldiers and Marines, and you always hear from them that, you know, it's hard for me being here, but it's much harder for my family back home. It's harder for my wife or it's harder for my parents with me over here. And you keep hearing that, but you don't realize how grueling it is for these families until you spend a lot of time with them.

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.

And we talked to some of the wives. Here's one of them. Her name's Melissa Fromm.

MELISSA FROMM: You know, the loneliness, you get - it's sad, but you kind of get used to it. You get used to doing everything in the house by yourself, taking care of the taxes, taking care of bills, but you don't feel like, oh, it's month three, we're in the clear. Taliban is vanquished. You know, it didn't get calmer for us.

BOWMAN: And, of course, what was different with this deployment with the Darkhorse Battalion, there were a huge number of casualties here, and it just all heightened their fears, their anxiety of the folks back home. Some wanted every scrap of news. And we talked to one woman, for example, who set up Google alerts with the words Marines and Sangin. And Sangin, of course, was the place they deployed to in Afghanistan.

SULLIVAN: Google alert. So that she could get instant information?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. They got it on Facebook or Twitter. The news moves much faster than it would have even five, 10 years ago. And as a consequence of that, the Marine leadership has to be ready to give more information to the families. So in this case, as the anxieties increased and the fear increased, the Marines were, in some ways, caught flat-footed. They have to give more information. They set up town hall meetings to help these families. But again, it just shows you in this day and age with instant information what it can do to the families back home.

SULLIVAN: So for Darkhorse Battalion, what's going to happen next? Are they headed back?

BOWMAN: Well, it's interesting. They're heading out in what's known as a Marine Expeditionary Unit, also called MEU. And basically, they set sail with a number of ships. They'll be heading out into the Pacific. If there's any sort of humanitarian problem like the Japanese tsunami, they'll go help.

Now, it's interesting. We talked to the wives about this MEU trip they're taking, Amy Murray and Melissa Fromm. Let's listen to how they reacted to this.

AMY MURRAY: Wives are always, you know, ecstatic when this MEU shows up and the husbands are kind of like, really? Ship? For eight months? Really?

FROMM: Part of me is dreading it because I - it's never fun to say goodbye for seven months. But to do it without having to be worried is a piece of cake.

MURRAY: It wasn't very different for us.

FROMM: Yeah.

BOWMAN: So as you hear, the wives are happy that the Marines are heading out to sea where they'll hopefully be out of harm's way. Many of the Marines we talked with, they'd prefer to go back to Afghanistan.

SULLIVAN: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, and his series on the Darkhorse Battalion aired all this week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.