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Marines return from Afghan mission

'Island Warriors' suffered 9 deaths on deployment to volatile south and west

KANEOHE BAY — Marine Lance Cpl. Larry Draughn lost both legs and part of his hand in May when he stepped through a doorway and set off a roadside bomb in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

But the 22-year-old's motivation to survive turned out to be pretty strong.

Asked what went through his mind when the smoke and fire cleared, Draughn said, "Oh, man, everything. My wife and my kid. Just seeing them smile in the back of my mind knowing that I had to fight through for them."

He was walking again on prosthetic legs a month after he got to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for rehabilitation.

And yesterday, Draughn made sure he was there in a hangar at Kaneohe Bay to welcome fellow Marines and sailors home.

"I owed it to them," said the Ohio man, who now uses a cane. "They saved my life."

About 300 Marines and sailors with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment returned to their base at Kaneohe Bay yesterday morning after a six-month deployment to a violent south and western Afghanistan.

Sabrina Kachurka, who was reunited with her husband, Lance Cpl. Eric Kachurka, 21, summed up what just about every family member was thinking.

"It's really a great feeling (that he's back)," Sabrina Kachurka said. "Just knowing where he was and the danger he was in — it was crazy. It's just really exciting, overwhelming."

When she spotted her husband coming off the charter Omni Air International jet, she ran and jumped into his arms. The couple's first wedding anniversary was earlier this month, and it was Eric Kachurka's first deployment as a Marine.

The "Island Warriors" were greeted by several hundred friends and family members in Hangar 105 at the Marine Corps base as a band played and tears of joy flowed.

The battalion of about 1,000 Marines and sailors deployed in May to Helmand and Farah provinces in its first combat tour of Afghanistan since 2006. They operated in an area the size of Vermont.

The unit was part of a surge of 21,000 extra U.S. troops ordered to an increasingly restive Afghanistan by President Obama. Other groups of 2nd Battalion Marines will be returning in coming days.

The Marines battled insurgents in the poppy fields, orchards and walled compounds of southern Helmand province. They also were based out of the desert terrain in western Farah province that was once part of an old caravan route.

Lance Cpl. Trevon Robinson, 21, who was with Fox Company in Farah province, said Afghanistan was a "huge change" from his last deployment to Iraq.

Iraq was a "hearts and minds kind of thing — dealing with the local people. In Afghanistan, it wasn't that way. It was more firefights and more (roadside bombs)," Robinson said.

Capt. Zachary Martin, the commander of Golf Company, said his Marines were involved in 15 to 20 major engagements that each lasted up to several hours, involved up to 40 to 50 enemy fighters and required U.S. helicopter or jet ground support.

"Well over a dozen" Purple Hearts for battlefield injuries will be awarded within his company, he said.

Chris Brummitt, an Associated Press reporter who was with Golf Company, said that by the end of June improvised explosive devices had killed one Marine and wounded seven. Eight Mar-ines and a Navy corpsman with the 2nd Battalion were killed on the deployment.

Martin said Helmand province is important because its opium finances the Taliban, and the district center of Now Zad — now abandoned — once was the No. 2 city in Helmand.

"You can tell it was a very verdant, successful and productive city at one time," Martin said. "So obviously reclaiming and rebuilding that would be a huge victory over the Taliban."

Martin said there was no U.S. involvement with the local populace or Afghan security presence at the start of the deployment, but "when we left, we had all those things."

Another Marine company has replaced Martin's unit, and he said an eventual improvement plan would have an international demining effort clear Now Zad of roadside bombs.

Another 1,000 Hawaii Marines with the 1st Battalion will be leaving for Afghanistan in about two weeks, but the area where they will operate has not been disclosed