Marines who went to 'hell and back' in Afghanistan rely on camaraderie to heal

Marcus Chischilly makes his way up the First Sergeant's Hill to honor his fallen comrades during the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment Darkhorse Reunion at the San Mateo Memorial Garden April 29, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Shellie Hall/Released)


By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The Orange County Register | Published: July 3, 2019

LAGUNA HILLS, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Maj. Joe Patterson stood by his custom-designed motorcycle dedicated to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines — the Darkhorse Battalion.

The bike’s fender and gas tank are covered with the names of 25 Marines who died during the battalion’s 2010 deployment to the Sangin District, in the Helmand Province of Southern Afghanistan.

Patterson, a 1st lieutenant during that deployment, created the memorial bike so the Marines who died would be remembered and he could tell their stories when someone asked.

“How ya’ doin?” Marcus Chischilly asked Patterson.

Chischilly, a sergeant, lost his leg during that deployment almost a decade ago — blown to pieces when he stepped on an improvised explosive during a reconnaissance patrol in Khajaki on Oct. 9, 2010, just a week after deploying.

“Livin’,” Patterson answered. “I’ve got air in my lungs. It’s a good day.”

The two fist-pumped and hugged.

Patterson, 39, of San Clemente and Chischilly, 32, of San Diego, are among a core group of Marines from that deployment that reunited at a Memorial Day event in Laguna Hills. Patterson remains in the Marine Corps and is now a major; Chischilly medically retired in 2016.

Both struggle with memories of loss but reunions such as the one in May keep them united. It’s a sense of resiliency and camaraderie, in which they relied on each other to survive, that keeps them going.

The 3/5 battalion, based at Camp Pendleton, arrived Sept. 27, 2010 in Sangin, a hotbed for Taliban fighters and drug traffickers. The Marines replaced British troops, who in four years lost 100 men — mostly to buried IEDs.

During the battlion’s seven-month deployment, the unit commanded by then Lt. Col. Jason Morris suffered the highest casualty rate of any Marine unit in Afghanistan.

The battalion had just arrived in the area — fields filled with beige mud walls surrounding village compounds — when it suffered its first fatality: Lance Cpl. John Sparks was killed on Oct. 8. Seven more Marines died a week later.

By the end of the deployment, 25 Marines had been killed and nearly 200 were injured. About three dozen Marines lost a limb.

It was the costliest deployment of a Marine combat unit since Vietnam.

Deploying to Afghanistan

Before the unit deployed, Morris said, he knew he was headed into a heavily contested area and would face immense challenges.

“I had no idea what type of losses we would sustain,” said Morris, 49, whose nomination to become brigadier general-select was recently approved by the U.S. Senate. “Bottom line is that in war, the enemy has a say in the outcome. The Taliban coveted Sangin and would pay a high price before it conceded ground in the Sangin River Valley.”

Morris was battling a well-entrenched enemy that knew the people and terrain. The Taliban had spent more than four years placing IEDs against the British and had a well-established regional network of resupply and replacements.

At one point, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates considered pulling the battalion out. But Morris and other top Marines said it would be a mistake.

“Our mission to expand security, governance and economic development led us to challenge the Taliban’s control over every aspect of the population’s lives,” Morris said. “The Taliban and the tribes aligned with them resisted fiercely. They wanted to retain control of Sangin because it was the epicenter of opium production and financing in Helmand Province, and its loss would negatively impact their ability to finance their war.”

In the end, Morris said, it was his Marines’ fight and warrior mentality that led to their success.

“That experience is something I will be identified with for all my career,” he said. “People who know me respect that experience and the fact that we came out and got on top. We crushed the Taliban. It sent a shockwave through the North Helmand Province, that the Marine Corps was there and took the fight to them and destroyed them. We cleared out Sangin where the Afghan people could live in a semblance of peace. My Marines accomplished the mission with their heads held high and kept their honor clean.

“Being back here is with family. Brothers in arms for life.”

Marcus Chischilly enjoys family time with his son Avary, 9, left, Liam, 2, and Khalleyah, 4, on Tuesday, October 30, 2018. Chischilly lost his leg and suffered severe injuries while serving in Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in 2011. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Marcus Chischilly, a Marine at 18

Chischilly grew up on a Navajo reservation and later in Phoenix. He joined the Marine Corps in 2005 at age 18 to carry on the legacy of the Navajo World War II code talkers.

“It’s a tradition for our people,” Chischilly said. “My uncle served in the Marine Corps and everyone revered him.”

Chischilly first deployed to Iraq in 2006. Then two more times. He re-enlisted and had planned on getting a break from fighting. But the day he checked in at the 3/5 he realized that wasn’t going to happen.

“They were in battalion formation and Lt. Col. Morris said, ‘We’ve had a change, we’re going to Afghanistan in eight months,’” Chischilly recalled. “I was happy to do the job the Marine Corps required. … Any good infantryman will say the point of combat is what we look for.”

On Oct. 9, 2010, Chischilly led a platoon of Marines and Afghan police officers on a reconnaissance mission to assess the enemy’s strengths. They got into a small firefight and knew their team couldn’t sustain a heavy battle. An artillery unit provided cover as they withdrew.

Chischilly was second from the end as they walked in a single line, an Afghan policeman behind him. Suddenly, a blast went off.

“I stepped on the IED everyone stepped over,” Chischilly said. “The Afghan police officer behind me ended up dying. Unfortunately, he gave his life and I lost a leg. In combat that’s just what happens. I was more upset I was taken out of the fight.”

Carlos Garcia, a Marine at 19

Carlos Garcia was 19 when he joined the Marines. He had grown up in a rough part of Los Angeles and decided that joining the military was his only way out.

“The Marine Corps really spoke to me,” said Garcia, now 28 and living in Murietta. “I wanted to prove to myself I could join the toughest branch and come out on the other side.”

He enlisted in August 2009, a day after his 19th birthday.

When he deployed to Afghanistan as a combat engineer attached to an infantry unit, it was his job to be out in front with a metal detector, looking for IEDs.

The first time he failed at his job, he said, was when Lance Cpl. James Bulk was killed after stepping on a pressure plate right behind him.

“I don’t know if he slipped but he stepped on it,” Garcia said. “It was right after I found one directly in front of me.”

Bulk’s death haunted Garcia. After that patrol, he said, he never let the squads get close to him.

“I felt like I failed them,” he said. “From that day on I decided it was just me and only me. I would sweep everything. If the metal detector went off, I’d cover my eyes and take a step where I swept.”

On Nov. 20, 2010, Garcia was on patrol when he had a bad feeling, he said. He came alongside a ditch and jumped in. As he did, a pressure plate went off.

“It went really dark and I remember my face being down in the dirt, massive ringing in my ears, and it felt like my legs were on fire and there was this intense tingling throughout my lower body,” he said. “I was confused and rolled over. I realized my legs were destroyed.”

A corpsman jumped in and applied a tourniquet and began chopping away at a root that he believed pierced the skin of Garcia’s left leg. “He was able to untangle my leg from the root,” Garcia said.

He was put on a stretcher and carried out.

Carlos Garcia lost both his legs when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Sangin, Afghanistan in 2010. He now maintains a memorial for his fallen comrades on a hilltop in Camp Pendleton on Sunday, October 28, 2018. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Lance Cpl. Irwin Ceniceros, a Marine dead at 21

Ceniceros was one of the 25 men killed during the 2010 deployment. His family comes to the Laguna Hills Memorial Day event each year from Mexico.

“It’s a way for us to feel his presence,” said Vanessa Ceniceros, Irwin’s sister. “For us, it’s like recharging our batteries. We get strength and we see a lot of people wounded with him and they’re still pushing through their difficulties.”

The Marine died Oct. 14, 2010, at age 21. He was awarded a posthumous Silver Star for courage in combat.

“He was one one of my Marines,” Patterson said. “We were in one of the worst gunfights and were engaged from three directions. We got through the first part with no casualties only because he drew fire to himself.”

They were attacked a second time, Patterson said, and again Ceniceros ran out to engage the Taliban.

“He fell down because he was shot,” Patterson said. “He tells Marines not to come out. Despite being shot through the chest, he picked up his machine gun and moved to a different place. Corpsmen came out to give him treatment and he threw them off with one arm. He got back behind the gun until he died. He died pulling the trigger. He did that because four Marines were still stuck. There’s no greater love story than that.”

Recovery and resilience

Chischilly and Garcia were flown out of Afghanistan to Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to begin their long road of recovery.

They became part of the Wounded Warrior Regiment, through which active-duty Marines receive services for their injuries and eventually are helped with transitioning out of the service.

Though they were in the same battalion, they first met at the Balboa Naval Medical Hospital where they bonded over handcycling. They trained together and eventually both signed up for a marathon.

They soon moved on to wheelchair basketball where they competed at the Marine Corps Trials. Later, they joined the San Diego Wolfpack, the only wheelchair basketball team in the U.S. made up of active-duty and veteran service members who are missing limbs or have spinal cord injuries.

“Everyone at Wounded Warrior was injured in the Helmand Region,” Garcia said. “We started seeing a lot of us come in. For us, it was very tough love. If one was really struggling, we’re like, ‘Come on, dude, let’s go — you’ll be fine.’ We did show emotion and brought down the curtain. We were always there for each other.”

Chischilly, a father of four, and Garcia, a father of two, have rebuilt their lives to a new normal. Both credit the strength of their wives as inspiration.

Chischilly works at the San Diego Zoo and helps run Wild Heroes, an internship program that connects transitioning veterans to wildlife conservation. He also reaches out to veterans as they work to recover.

“I was trying to figure out, how can I be significant in my community,” he said. “I had to look at what life would be like after the military. When you understand yourself physically, mentally and spiritually, you’re a better fighter. It’s led me to be a better person. I have to give that back to others who had a like experience. I want to teach them what I’ve learned. One day the Marine Corps page will turn and they have to learn what the rest of their life will look like.”

Garcia works at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County as a contractor for the Air National Guard, where he remains around a lifestyle with which he feels most comfortable, he said.

In November, Garcia was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat V for valor; the ceremony was held with a platoon from the 3/5 which was on pre-deployment training at Camp Pendleton. The medal was presented to him by then-Capt. Vic Garcia, who led the patrol when Carlos Garcia was injured.

“Not only did he save lives but he led from the front,” Vic Garcia said. “He is inspiring and motivating through his own personal example. He was at the tip of the spear and there for his fellow Marines. Now, as a civilian, he’s out there as a productive member of society pushing along.”

Life-affirming reunion

Like Chiscilly, Garcia said he wouldn’t have missed the Laguna Hills Memorial Day Half Marathon. It brought back many memories, including when he ran his first 5K, in 2017, with retired Navy pilot Evan Gost, who flew in Vietnam.

“It was crazy,” Garcia said. “As we ran we saw all this support. Team Darkhorse had banners of all the Marines who passed. When I looked up, I just started crying, it was really emotional for me. It felt like something was lifted off my shoulders.”

Patterson credits the Team Darkhorse community group, created in 2008, for their years of support for the 3/5 battalion.

“My hope is they know how special they are,” he said. “Events like these, the community shows so much love and it hasn’t stopped. It helped us to respond to the trauma of a horrible deployment.”

©2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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Marcus Chischilly sets and shoots on Tuesday June 23, 2015, during the Warrior Games championship wheelchair basketball matchup between Team Marine Corps and Navy at Quantico Marine Base, Virginia. Team Marine Corps won 57-24.

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