Cpl. David R. Hernandez/U.S. Marine Corps
U.S. Marines with 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment and the Afghan National Army provide cover as they move out of a dangerous area after taking enemy sniper fire during a security patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, in November 2010. During its seven-month deployment, the 3/5 sustained the highest casualty rate of any Marine unit during the Afghan war, losing 25 men.
The Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., was emblematic of the surge. Sent into Sangin, Afghanistan’s opium-producing heartland, in 2010, the battalion faced a formidable enemy expert in the use of I.E.D.’s., losing 25 Marines in a seven-month tour, the second most of any American unit in the entire war, a Times analysis shows.
Mark Moyar, an independent national security analyst who has studied the battalion’s operations, said that the British who had preceded the Marines in Sangin, a district in Helmand, focused on economic development and political outreach to undermine the insurgency. But the Taliban also operated with near impunity in parts of the district, he said.
The battalion took a different approach, pushing into Taliban-dominated villages. Fighting was intense, with civilians often getting caught in the middle, and casualties piled up fast.
On Oct. 8, barely two weeks after the battalion landed, it lost its first Marine, Lance Cpl. John T. Sparks. Five days later, four Marines of the battalion died when their armored truck was destroyed by a powerful bomb. Three more died the next day when they stepped on a mine during a foot patrol.
The rapid-fire deaths prompted calls in Washington for the battalion to pull back. But senior Marine commanders — including the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jason Morris — prevailed on Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to leave them in place.
“Everyone was shocked, including me, that we lost that many guys that quickly,” Colonel Morris said. “But honestly, me and most of my Marines would have rather come home in body bags than let the Taliban claim a victory.”