The Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines have begun to come home to Camp Pendleton after an intense eight month tour in Afghanistan that top Pentagon officials say will rank their battles among the legends of Marine lore.
Referred to as the 3-5, the 950-man Marine battalion experienced some of the highest casualty rates ever experienced by an American combat unit in the war in Afghanistan with 25 dead and 140 wounded. The casualties included more than a dozen amputees.
One of the fatalities was 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, the son of Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who is the personal military aide to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The general was the highest ranking officer to lose a child in Afghanistan.
There were happy reunions at Camp Pendleton Monday night as the first wave of 250 Marines returned home from a tour that garnered them praise for their heroism after a long tough fight.
The unit began its bloody tour in October when it took over control of Sangin district from British forces that had also taken significant casualties during their deployments in what had long been a Taliban stronghold.
The Marines were given the tough task of pushing out beyond the town center to broaden the security zone for local residents. They faced heavy combat almost instantly and the unit's increasingly high casualty rates last fall raised concern among top Pentagon officials.
By January, Marine commanders were praising the 3-5 Marines for their heroism and battlefield successes that had pushed Taliban forces out of the district.
When Gates visited the 3-5 Marines in Afghanistan last month, he told them he checked their status daily and that he said a prayer every day they returned safely to their base, "and I say a prayer the other days, as well," he said.
"Your success obviously has come at an extraordinary price," he told them. "Our nation owes you an incredible debt for the sacrifices you've made. Since October, the 3-5 has suffered the heaviest losses of any battalion in this 10 year long war," he said.
"You've written a new chapter in Marine Corps roll of honor," Gates said, adding that Sangin will take its place alongside past battles like the World War II battle of Guadalcanal in the pantheon of Marine heroism.
As the unit's losses mounted during their deployment, military medical personnel said they were surprised by the unit's mental health resiliency and said they didn't find higher combat stress levels.
Concerned that the mounting casualties might take a high psychological toll on 3-5 Marines during the rest of their tour, Marine mental health professionals based in Afghanistan paid particular attentions to the unit's needs. Visits to the unit's bases did not show a higher number of mental health issues compared with the other Marine battalions in Helmand Province.
"We're just not seeing what one might expect from a unit as heavily engaged in combat as they are in terms of the, like, a combat stress reaction," Navy Cmdr. Charles Benson told Pentagon reporters in January .
That said, in an effort to reduce the effects of possible Post Traumatic Stress back home, more mental health professionals have been brought to Camp Pendleton to help the unit and their families. Furthermore, the unit has been ordered to be kept as intact as possible for three months so that the Marines can decompress together. While an Army combat battalion saw 27 fatalities during a 15 month tour, no other unit has faced such high casualty rates in a tour that was half that length.