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Hoping To Rebuild Connections, Marines From Darkhorse Battalion Reunite

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Third Battalion Fifth Marines, the 3/5, known as the Darkhorse Battalion, suffered the most casualties of any Marine unit in Afghanistan. The 3/5 lost 25 men during a deployment in a place called Sangin in 2010 and 11. Scores more were injured - many grievously - mostly due to improvised explosive devices. Added to the loss are those Marines who have died since their unit returned home.

Alison St. John of member station KPBS in San Diego attended a 3/5 reunion - the first in five years.

JASON MORRIS: Ladies, gentleman, fellow Marines and sailors, welcome to the 3/5 Darkhorse fifth-year reunion of our Sangin deployment.

ALISON ST. JOHN, BYLINE: Colonel Jason Morris was in charge of 3/5 when they fought in Helmand Province. He also presided over the reunion, held in a quiet spot on the edge of Camp Pendleton under a grove of trees. Once the formalities were over, reconnecting began in earnest.

MORRIS: Hey, what's up, dude?

ST. JOHN: Morris says the Marine Corps is hoping to rebuild connections the men had when they went through a defining moment of their lives, when their buddies were key to their survival.

MORRIS: That's why we decided we need to get the guys together. We had had three or four suicides over the last four or five years. Some of them, people didn't even know about.

ST. JOHN: Many members of the unit left the military soon after returning home. Most of those who kept close ties with buddies who understood what they'd been through were those who were injured. Michael Spivey was one of 35 who lost limbs. He looks fit and active in a checkered shirt, but his left sleeve is empty.

MICHAEL SPIVEY: A lot of us got injured, so we all went to the same hospital. And so we had that built-in camaraderie. So we still keep in touch. But, I mean, with the guys back at the unit, you know, like, as soon as they got back, a lot of them were going to a different unit or they would get out. Nobody really knew what was going on.

ST. JOHN: Spivey says it was more difficult in some ways for the people who did not have visible injuries. Even Marines in other units didn't have that common experience of Sangin in 2010. For Karen Kelly, being around Marines who were with her son when he died has been vital for her healing. Kelly, the wife of retired General John Kelly, lost her son First Lieutenant Rob Kelly.

KAREN KELLY: Because of the loss - just the numbers alone - we all have bonded. I'm very good friends with a lot of Rob's Marines. And he just is never forgotten. The things that they tell me about him - and all these moms would say the same thing - you really find out about who your child was after you lose them. And he makes me very proud of the man he became.

ST. JOHN: Before everyone drifted off in the sun to a nearby football field for a barbecue, Colonel Morris challenged them to reach out to each other over the next year and stay connected. He says he's planning another reunion next year.

MORRIS: We're trying to energize our communications network and really, I think, hope that that acts as a emotional buffer to them if they're having a problem 'cause we don't want to lose anymore.

ST. JOHN: For NPR News, I'm Alison St. John in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.