A solemn hike, a carving and closure. Marine survivors of Afghanistan’s deadly Sangin Valley reunite

Current and former servicemembers of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, who fought in Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2011 hike up 1st Sergeant’s Hill at Camp Pendleton on Monday, carrying a wooden carving honoring those who were killed in combat.
(John Gastaldo/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Forever changed by war, Camp Pendleton’s 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment and surviving families memorialize loved ones lost

They began arriving at the crack of dawn. Marine Corps veterans, Gold Star families, active duty Marines and a film crew mingled in anticipation for what lay ahead as the sun rose behind the clouds of the Pacific marine layer at Camp Pendleton.

Some bore the effects of battle on their bodies — scars and missing limbs. For others, including the families of those killed, the scars were less visible.

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Looming above them was 1st Sergeant’s Hill, a steep climb from the valley floor where they stood, on the military base’s northern boundary. They’d gathered for a reunion, and to present today’s 1st Battalion, 5th Marines with a chainsaw-carved memorial to honor brethren from another era, lost to Afghanistan’s Sangin Valley more than a decade ago.


The painted wooden carving stands about 3 feet tall and depicts a traditional battlefield cross — a rifle posed vertically out of a pair of combat boots, topped with a battle helmet. The battlefield cross is often all that deployed troops have to memorialize their fallen comrades.

But before the carving could be presented to the battalion, there was one more thing to do — carry it up 1st Sergeant’s Hill.

Marines for years have carried boulders and sandbags up the steep grade, not only to make the difficult hike even harder, but also to recognize the sacrifices of those who are memorialized at the top.

The carving would take the same journey. It is one of 72 done by 1/5 veteran Anthony Marquez, whose path since leaving the Marine Corps led to Monday’s reunion of survivors of Sangin.

Former Lance Cpl. Cody Elliott, third from left, hikes up 1st Sergeants Hill on Camp Pendleton with the encouragement of Amos Angoy-Johnson, second from left, and Brett Tate, right, all current or former members of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.
(John Gastaldo/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Located in the northern Helmand province of Afghanistan, Sangin was one of the deadliest regions for allied troops. Over the course of the war, almost 200 troops were killed there.


During the so-called surge of 2010, Marines from Camp Pendleton first bolstered, then replaced British forces in Sangin.

The casualty numbers were staggering. Twenty-five Camp Pendleton-based “Darkhorse” Marines of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines were killed and 200 were wounded during their deployment to the area. When 1/5 replaced them in March 2011, they faced the same conditions that made 3/5’s deployment so bloody — poor roads and trails laden with buried improvised explosive devices, entrenched Taliban fighters, and dangerous, single-file foot patrols.

Seventeen 1/5 Marines were killed during that seven-month deployment. More than 160 were wounded.

Marquez, a corporal at the time, served as a dog-handler. He and his bomb-sniffing dog, Allie, helped detect the IEDs that made Sangin so costly for allied forces.

The decision to sculpt battlefield crosses for the Marines lost in Sangin came in 2016 after the mother of one of those killed attempted suicide, Marquez told the Union-Tribune in an interview. After delivering a carving to her, he decided it wasn’t enough.

“I couldn’t just do it for her — I had to do it for all 17 families,” Marquez said.

Cpl. Anthony Marquez and his military working dog, Allie, in Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2011. Marquez would later adopt Allie.
(Courtesy of Anthony Marquez)

The carving project led to another idea. Marquez, with his brother, filmmaker Manny Marquez, decided to revisit the families and 1/5 veterans and interview them for a documentary, self-funded via GoFundMe. The reunion, hike and delivery of the carving would serve as the project’s finishing touch, Marquez said.

1st Sergeant’s Hill is already home to a cluster of homemade crosses hand-built by survivors. It memorializes West Coast infantry Marines — not just those killed in battle — including those from 1st Battalion, 4th Regiment killed in 2020’s assault amphibious vehicle sinking and those killed in last year’s bombing of the Kabul, Afghanistan, airport.

The hilltop — barely visible from the floor of the valley below — is not an official memorial, Marine Corps officials said, but one more personal and intimate than those carved in stone and displayed in more prominent and accessible locations. Personal artifacts of those lost to war adorn the dozens of crosses — shirts, hats, jackets, sunglasses, tobacco tins. Some bear a single name; others, many. All have unopened bottles and cans of beer and liquor.


When it came time to carry Marquez’s carving up the hill, a group of currently serving 1/5 Marines stepped up to the task.

Retired Cpl. Cody Elliott, who uses a prosthetic leg due to injuries sustained in Sangin, completed the hike alongside them. Elliott was featured in a 2011 Union-Tribune photo at the memorial service at the base upon 1/5’s return. The photo became symbolic of the sacrifices San Diego sailors and Marines made during the war.

Lance Cpl. Cody Elliott grabs the dog tags of fellow Lance Cpl. Nicholas S. O’Brien, killed during a deployment to Sangin, Afghanistan, at the end of a memorial service at Camp Pendleton on Nov. 4, 2011.
(John Gastaldo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Elliott gathered with other surviving members of his platoon around one of the simple wooden crosses already at the top — one dedicated to the three Marines his platoon lost in Sangin: Lance Cpl. Joshua McDaniels, 23, Lance Cpl. Nicholas O’Brien, 21, and Cpl. Michael Dutcher, 22.

The survivors traded stories of their lost comrades.

“There’s a lot of names up here, a lot of buddies of ours that gave that sacrifice over there, but these were just some guys that we were pretty close to,” Elliott told the Union-Tribune. “They impacted the whole platoon.”

On June 12, 2011, when McDaniels was mortally wounded by an IED, Elliott ran to assist, and a second IED exploded, injuring him.

Felix Farias holds a memorial marker with his son’s name on it at the top of 1st Sergeant’s Hill at Camp Pendleton along with two others who died on a 1st Battalion, 5th Marines deployment to Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2011.
(John Gastaldo/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I was hit by a secondary device that left me ... pretty bloody, broken and bruised,” he said. “But I’m here today to live to tell the story and suffer in pain up this beautiful mountain for their legacy.”

For Elliott, who traveled from his home in Brazil to participate, it was important that these Marines are not forgotten.


Elliott said he went through some difficult times with post-traumatic stress disorder after leaving the Marines but found renewed passion for life when he started rock-climbing around San Diego. He decided to live well in honor of those who didn’t make it home.

“I’m encouraged to live in their name and let these guys be my guiding source in life,” Elliott said. “They took a step that could have been (any of the survivors).”

He started working in financial services and moved to Brazil, where his wife’s family lives, about four years ago when she became pregnant.

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Cody Elliott, left, shares a moment with Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas Savage, who was a lieutenant colonel during their deployment to Sangin, Afghanistan in 2011.
(John Gastaldo/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Nirmal Singh’s son, Cpl. Gurpeet Singh, 21, was among nine 1/5 Marines killed in action that June. Singh , who lives in Sacramento, said he was surprised when his son volunteered for that tour in Afghanistan, his second in the Marines. Singh said he thought his son was getting out, but he wanted to go to look out for the junior Marines in his unit.

“Everybody was worried when they left because they know that there’s a very bad situation over there,” said Singh.

Once there, his son had a close call when he was shot in his body armor and uninjured, Singh said. But then, maybe 10 days later, his son was killed by a sniper.

Singh, who is Sikh, said the memorials atop the hill were outside his culture’s customs. As is tradition in his religion, his son was cremated and they did not at first memorialize him. However, in 2021, Cpl. Gurpreet Singh became the first Sikh service member killed in Afghanistan to receive a headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.

1st Battalion, 5th Marine amputees stand near the summit in honor of their fellow service members who died in a deployment to Sangin, Afghanistan, in 2011.
(John Gastaldo / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Felix Farias and his wife, Penny Farias, traveled from their home in New Braunfels, Texas. Their son, Lance Cpl. John Farias, 20, was killed just days after Singh. It was their second visit to the memorial on 1st Sergeant’s Hill.


Although she lost her son more than a decade ago, Penny Farias said it does not feel like so long ago.

“It’s flown by so fast, like it should be yesterday — we’re still waiting on him to come home,” she said.

The documentary is not the only recent project focused on the unit and its time in Sangin. Several Marines offered their accounts of the battle and its aftermath in 2021’s “Third Squad” podcast.

Manny Marquez, who is directing the documentary, said there’s a good reason people come back to the story of Sangin to chronicle the war.

“I think we were in the middle of that conflict — smack dab in the middle — and we didn’t realize it,” he said. “The country was fatigued already from Iraq, so it became the forgotten war.”

For 1/5, Sangin should rank among the other historic battles from both world wars in which the battalion fought, Manny Marquez said.

For Anthony Marquez, the veteran, it’s about remembering the 17 who did not come home.

“One of the things the families all told me (was) they’re afraid they’ll be forgotten,” he said. “They all said the same thing. The families are still here. They love being around Marines that served with their sons.”

Navy Corpsman Brayden Benson, left, and wife Navy Corpsman Morgan Benson take a breather after summiting 1st Sergeant’s Hill. Nearby, Julianna Clemens kisses her husband, Marine Staff Sgt. Justin Clemens. Justin Clemens and Brayden Benson’s father both saw action in Sangin in 2011.
(John Gastaldo/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Most of the stones, sandbags and mementos carried up 1st Sergeant’s Hill are left at the top, adding to the growing makeshift memorials.


This carving, however, came back down.

At the 5th Regiment’s official memorial nearby on base, Brig. Gen. Thomas Savage, the deputy director of operations at U.S. Africa Command, spoke at a ceremony for the survivors and Marines. Savage led 1/5 as a lieutenant colonel in 2011 and flew in to participate in the hike and ceremony. He said commanding 1/5 was the most important thing he’s done in the Marines.

Savage told the families that after 11 years, the faces of those lost were still crystal-clear in his mind.

“I think about your sons every day,” he said.

Then, the carving was handed over to the regiment, its new home.

A wooden battlefield memorial cross stands atop 1st Sergeant’s Hill in honor of those killed in the 2011 battles in Afghanistan’s Sangin Valley.
(Andrew Dyer / The San Diego Union-Tribune)