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GUY RAZ, Host:

One group of troops just back from Afghanistan has been hit hard. A single unit from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment lost 13 of its members during its recent deployment there.

NPR's been following that unit over the past year. And yesterday, Catherine Welch of member station WHQR attended a memorial service at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for the fallen Marines.

CATHERINE WELCH: Corporal Nicholas Xiarhos wasn't supposed to be in Afghanistan this summer. But when President Obama came to this Marine Corps base in February, Xiarhos knew then he wanted to serve in Afghanistan.

STEVEN XIARHOS: He had met President Obama here at Camp Lejeune, shook his hand when he came and gave the speech, and that helped motivate him. He wanted to go, so he switched battalions.

WELCH: Xiarhos' father, Steven, has a portrait of his son tattooed on his right forearm. The last time he saw Nicholas was when he sent him off to war.

XIARHOS: And, you know, the last time I touched him was here, you know, at Camp Lejeune on May 15. I'll never forget it. And gave him a huge hug, and he crushed me.

WELCH: Back then, Xiarhos had a bad feeling that he might have to return to Camp Lejeune for a more formal goodbye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELCH: On the stage of an auditorium, a spotlight moves down the line of 13 portraits standing behind 13 rifles draped with the helmet, boots and dog tags of the 13 fallen.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYMBALS)

WELCH: The sobs of grieving parents punctuate the service, while many of the Marines listen with their heads in their hands.

There are a thousand Marines and family members packed inside this hall here at Camp Lejeune. It's been two weeks since the unit came home from Afghanistan. During the eulogy, their Chaplin Terry Roberts fights his emotions.

TERRY ROBERTS: We may be asking ourselves, why did this happen? Why did some return safely, why others did not? Excuse me. Sometimes there just isn't a right answer.

WELCH: And sometimes there's the guilt of not doing enough.

CHRISTIAN CABANNIS: I do not expect to be forgiven for my failure.

WELCH: That's Lieutenant Colonel Christian Cabannis, the commanding officer of the battalion addressing his Marines.

CABANNIS: I alone will carry the responsibility for the losses of the battalion. For each of you who were with our angels on the field of battle, you do not have that worry. I know that you did everything possible for your brothers, even at the risk of your own lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELCH: The ceremony ends with a farewell as families and Marines walked down the line of portraits. Colonel Cabannis stops at each one, pressing his hand on each helmet and lowering his head.

For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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