SPRINGVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gretchen Catherwood remembers the worst moment of her life: three Marines and a Navy chaplain were walking toward her front door, and that could only mean one thing.
Her 19-year-old son, Marine Lance Cpl. Alec Catherwood, was dead, killed fighting the Taliban on Oct. 14, 2010.
As she watched the news over the last two weeks, it felt like that day happened 10 minutes ago. The American military pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban took over, and in an instant all the battles fought and sacrifices made seemed to be for nothing.
Gretchen Catherwood’s phone buzzed with messages: from the officer who’d delivered the news of her son’s death; the parents of others killed in battle or by suicide since; her son’s fellow fighters in the storied 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, nicknamed the Darkhorse Battalion, that endured the highest rate of causalities in Afghanistan.
Friends told her how horrible they’d felt that her son had died in vain. As she exchanged messages with the others who’d paid the price of war, she worried its end was forcing them to question whether all they had suffered had mattered.
“There are three things I need you to know,” she said to some. “You did not fight for nothing. Alec did not lose his life for nothing. I will be here for you no matter what, until the day I die.”
The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment deployed in the fall of 2010 from Camp Pendleton, California, sending 1,000 U.S. Marines on what would become one of the bloodiest tours for American service members in Afghanistan.
The Darkhorse Battalion spent six months battling Taliban fighters in the Sangin district of Helmand province, which remained almost entirely in the Taliban’s control nearly a decade into the U.S.-led war.
Sangin was Alec Catherwood’s first combat deployment. He had enlisted in the Marines while still in high school, went to boot camp shortly after graduation, then was assigned to a 13-man squad led by former Sgt. Sean Johnson.
Johnson was impressed by Catherwood’s professionalism — physically fit, mentally tough and always on time.
“He was only 19, so that was extra special,” Johnson said. “Some are still just trying to figure out how to tie their boots and not get yelled at.”
Former Cpl. William Sutton of Yorkville, Illinois, swore Catherwood would crack jokes even during a firefight.
“Alec, he was a shining light in that darkness,” said Sutton, who was shot multiple times fighting in Afghanistan. “And then they took it from us.”
On Oct. 14, 2010, Catherwood’s squad came under fire from ambushing Taliban fighters, and then came a deafening explosion — one of the Marines had stepped on a hidden bomb. Another explosion followed. Looking to his left, Johnson saw Catherwood floating facedown. It was obvious, he said, that the young Marine was dead.
The Darkhorse Battalion returned to California in April 2011. After months of intense fighting, they’d largely seized Sangin from the Taliban’s grip.
It came at a heavy price. In addition to the 25 who perished, more than 200 returned home wounded, many with lost limbs, others with scars harder to see.
Some who served with the Darkhorse Battalion are having a hard time seeing it any way other than that their efforts, their blood and the lives of their fallen friends were for nothing.
“I’m starting to feel like how the Vietnam vets felt. There was no purpose to it whatsoever,” said Sutton, 32, who now works in the veterans services office of a county outside Chicago.
“We were able to hold our head up high and say we went to the last Taliban stronghold and we gave them hell,” Sutton said, “only for it all to be taken away. In the blink of an eye.”
Former Sgt. George Barba of Menifee, California, 34, works as a private security guard near Los Angeles. He and his wife are expecting their first child. He said he’s had trouble sorting his feelings about the bleak news from Afghanistan.
“It really is weird,” Barba said. “I’ve seen my guys get mad. I’ve seen my guys get frustrated. But not like this. This is like somebody spit in their face.”
Johnson, 34, works as a commercial diver in Florida. He said the U.S. should have acknowledged years ago that the Afghan security forces Americans trained and equipped would never be able to defend the country on their own.
“My personal opinion, yeah, we probably should have pulled out years and years ago,” Johnson said. “If you’re not going to win the damn thing, what are you doing there?”
In the woods behind the Catherwood’s house, Gretchen and her husband, Kirk, are building a retreat for combat veterans, a place where they can gather and grapple together with the horrors of war. They call it the Darkhorse Lodge, and there are 25 rooms, each named after one of the men killed from their son’s battalion. The ones who made it home have become their surrogate sons, she said. And she knows of more than a half-dozen who have died from suicide.
“I am fearful of what this might do to them psychologically. They’re so strong and so brave and so courageous. But they also have really, really big hearts. And I feel that they might internalize a lot and blame themselves,” she said. “And oh God, I hope they don’t blame themselves.”
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia.
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