GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I'm Robert Siegel.
And we continue now with our week-long series about one Marine unit, the Darkhorse Battalion, and its experience in Afghanistan. It suffered the worst casualty rate of any Marine unit in the entire war. Yesterday, we introduced you to Ashley Tawney, the wife of a squad leader, Sergeant Ian Tawney.
ASHLEY TAWNEY: I don't know how I got to the door. It felt like I like floated over there or something.
SIEGEL: Her husband was one of 25 Marines in the battalion who were killed. When she got the news, Ashley Tawney was just waking up from a nap.
TAWNEY: And I opened the door and the chaplain was there and then a gunner sergeant from his unit. And I was just in shock. And there's no goodbye. There is no nothing.
SIEGEL: Today, NPR's Tom Bowman talks with other Darkhorse families about what it's like to wait for a husband or son who's gone to war.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Dave Boelk works for the Navy outside Washington, D.C. And every morning, when he gets to work, he has a ritual. He turns on his computer and checks the military's classified reports from Afghanistan. One October day last year, he noticed one report in particular.
DAVE BOELK: It was just talking about an IED explosion and how many people were injured. There was one KIA and - because I remember making a comment to some of my colleagues Like, wow, my son's unit. You know, somebody died. That's really - hits close to home.
BOWMAN: Dave Boelk went about his day. Five hours went by.
BOELK: And then I got a call from our daughter who said there was two Marines at our house. And immediately, I knew. I kind of lost my composure at work, obviously. There was just total silence in the office. And, of course, what can they say? I just shut all my computers off and picked up my bags and told them I had to go home.
BOWMAN: I caught up with Dave Boelk a few weeks ago. It was just days before the one-year anniversary of his son's death. He was sitting at his dining room table, just steps from the front door where the Marines appeared that morning. That door now includes a banner with a gold star to mark the loss of their son, Lance Corporal James Boelk.
Boelk's wife, Cilicia, sits across the table from him. She remembers how just before she learned her son died, she felt something was wrong.
CILICIA BOELK: I was uneasy all day. I was up most of the night.
BOWMAN: The next morning, she went out on an errand. She got back to their house, turned into their long driveway and spotted Dave's car and her daughter's car parked there. She knew something was wrong.
BOELK: Dave met me at the door. He had been crying. I know I think he said he thinks...
BOELK: I think I asked you to sit down. But by then you already knew.
BOWMAN: Lance Corporeal James Boelk was just 24. He stood six foot five. He was called Baloo by other Marines, after the huge but gentle bear in "The Jungle Book." He was on his first patrol when he was killed by a roadside bomb. He made his last call home to his parents a couple of weeks before.
BOELK: Then he said they had to go, but he wanted to make sure that we knew that he loved us.
BOWMAN: October of last year was the toughest month for the Darkhorse Battalion. They not only lost Lance Corporal James Boelk but seven other Marines in just three days, and many more were wounded, all from roadside bombs.
AMY MURRAY: There was just a lot of confusion and just worry. I mean, you're worried all the time.
BOWMAN: That's Amy Murray back at Camp Pendleton in California. Her husband, Captain Patrick Murray, was on his fifth combat tour. Amy couldn't imagine what was going on on this deployment. Like many of the wives, she wanted news, any news about what was happening.
MURRAY: I had Google Alerts up on my phone for Sangin and Third Battalion Fifth Marines and everything. Like, I wanted all that information.
BOWMAN: The one person who really knew what was going on was halfway around the world in Afghanistan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY AND GUNFIRE)
BOWMAN: The Darkhorse Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jason Morris, was focused on one of the toughest fights of the war. But he couldn't ignore the tug of the home front.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL JASON MORRIS: My wife finally called me one day and just said, hey, you have got to do something about informing the families.
BOWMAN: Morris says his wife, Jane, was getting 100 emails each day, and many had the same question.
MORRIS: Why are our guys getting killed and wounded right now?
BOWMAN: Morris had to find a way to get them more information, so he turned to Kim Reese, the battalion's family liaison back at Camp Pendleton, for help.
KIM REESE: It is their son who is in Afghanistan. It is their husband in Afghanistan. And they are scared, and they want answers.
BOWMAN: Reese set up a Facebook page for the battalion. She helped organize a town meeting at Pendleton where top Marine officers could speak to the families. Amy Murray, the woman who set up those Google Alerts, showed up at that town hall meeting. She didn't hear much good news.
MURRAY: They were really blunt, I think, about saying, it's bad, and it's probably going to continue to be touchy for a while.
BOWMAN: The officers explained what the Marines were doing to protect against roadside bombs, and they explained what would happen if the worst occurred, if a loved one was killed. The officers explained how families would be notified, who would arrive at their door.
MELISSA FROMM: I will never forget that one night during deployment, I woke up. It was 3 a.m. I swear that a doorbell woke me up. And my heart just dropped, and I didn't know what to do.
BOWMAN: Melissa Fromm's husband, Brad, was a platoon leader with Darkhorse Battalion. This was his first deployment. In the middle of the night, Melissa scrambled for the phone and reached her father, a retired Army officer.
FROMM: I think I just heard the doorbell ring. I don't know what to do. I'm really scared. And he was like, you need to go to a window. Can you look downstairs?
BOWMAN: So she made her way downstairs. Ten minutes had gone by. She peered through the peephole in the front door. There was nothing, just the glow of a streetlight and an empty road.
The stress, it was constant for the Darkhorse families, waiting for their Marines to come home. Here's Melissa again.
FROMM: Sometimes you'll see a name, and you're like, oh, my gosh. I've heard that name before. Is that my husband's friend? Is that one of my husband's Marines? Is that one of his Marine's best friends? It affects you at some level no matter what. But, of course, there's a sigh of relief when it's not your last name.
BOWMAN: It didn't get any better over the next few weeks. Darkhorse took so many casualties that even the top officer in the Marine Corps, General Jim Amos, came to California to meet the families.
GENERAL JIM AMOS: I was honest with them. I told them how it's a tough fight that their husbands are in. I told them I didn't see it getting any easier over the next couple of months. I promised them that I was going to over there and spend Christmas with them. And that was - I mean, that was pretty emotional.
BOWMAN: General Amos' voice breaks remembering the scene. He noticed the widow of one Marine sitting there. Her husband had been killed several weeks earlier. He saw some in the crowd wiping away tears.
In the course of seven months, two dozen families would find Marine officers at their door with crisp words of sorrow and regret. Amy Murray and Melissa Fromm were different. They got a homecoming.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BOWMAN: In April, at Camp Pendleton, they gathered with other families.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
BOWMAN: And as the buses rolled to a stop and the Marines jumped off, they raced to meet their husbands.
FROMM: You run. You jump. You don't know if they're ready to catch you or not...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FROMM: ...but you hope that they hold on.
BOWMAN: Even with all the excitement, there was also some bitter with the sweet.
MURRAY: I was so happy to see my husband, but I was so sad at the same time, because people that I care about, their husbands didn't get off the bus.
BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News.