Wounded Marine crawls up First Sergeants Hill to honor fallen brothers

Marine veteran Josue Barron climbs First Sergeant's Hill at Camp Pendleton, Calif., to mark the five-year anniversary of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines' hard-fought deployment to Afghanistan's Sangin district. The unit lost 25 men in seven months.

Some would say the two-minute video captures everything that is best about the Marine Corps — a one-legged Marine vet pushing through immense pain to conquer a colossal hill that memorializes fallen comrades. Beside him, brothers in arms shout words of encouragement and motivation. Within him, the memory of lost Marines provides strength to endure. 

The climb was part of a five-year reunion that honored the Marines and families of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines Regiment, which was hit hard during a 2011 deployment to Afghanistan.

The "Dark Horse" battalion made great gains, but at great cost, when it deployed in and around the town of Sangin, in Afghanistan's embattled Helmand province. In seven months, the battalion saw 25 Marines killed in action and another 184 wounded. Nearly three dozen of the wounded returned home as single, double and triple amputees.

Among them is former Cpl. Josue Barron, who lost a leg and his left eye in the conflict, and is shown in the April 30 video.

"When I saw that steep hill, I doubted myself a little bit," Barron told Marine Corps Times. And with good reason — First Sergeant's Hill rises far above the regimental headquarters at Camp Pendleton, California, and is a beast for even healthy Marines.

Worse yet, the hill's grade prevented Barron from performing the swinging motion needed to propel his prosthetic leg, which reaches to his hip. He decided to ditch the leg and press on.

"After a while my body went numb, but I wanted to get up there," he said. "I have friends up there, and there was no way I was coming back down without reaching them."

The friends of whom he speaks are names engraved on nearly two dozen wooden crosses. Erected by Marines put them up to honor their fallen, and the site has become hallowed ground. It is so special that a team of seven leathernecks rushed to rescue the memorial crosses just before wildfires consumed the hill in May 2014.

​"We used to do that climb before we deployed, but the crosses didn't go up until after that so I had never seen them," Barron said. "It took me five years, but I made it."

As Barron stood triumphant with friend and fellow former Marine veteran Will Makaafi, who provided the loudest shouts of encouragement, the two were soon joined by four Gold Star families who that also made climb.

"It was their way of honoring their boys," said Mark Soto, who organized the reunion. He is also the father of a sergeant wounded in Sangin Sagnin who has since been medically retired. Soto had started a Facebook page titled "The Boys of 3/5" as a way to help families share information and encouragement during the difficult deployment.

It was evident the bond and brotherhood fostered by the page would be needed long after the Marines returned home, Soto said, so he never shut it down. This led to the five-year reunion, which included 125 Marines and 350 family members. It even got a salute in a May 2 tweet from Commandant Gen. Robert Neller on Monday.

"Well done 3/5! @USMC needs more reunions 2 reconnect & take care of each other. LCpl Brown's haka: epic! Semper Fi!"

Neller told Marine Corps Times earlier this year in February that Marine units need to hold more reunions such as this are needed.

"Units tend to do reunions, but wWe are trying to facilitate more of that this year," he said. "We are just going to encourage people to stay connected. That is the best way to help each other because they trust each other."

That is not lost on Barron, who said many vets still face serious challenges uphill battles of their own. He is especially concerned about the high suicide rate among veterans.

"If someone sees me overcome my challenges, maybe they will think twice about overcoming theirs," he said.

The reunion included honors from Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego during a graduation parade, a barbecue, and other typical events, but Soto said it was the hours spent atop the hill that made the event truly special.

Barron said it was an emotional time as he gave special tribute to his platoon commander, 1st First Lt. Robert Kelly, who was killed instantly when he stepped on a landmine during a patrol in Sangin in 2010. Though known by most as the son of retired Gen. John Kelly, Barron remembers the mustang officer differently. 

"He was a good man, a good platoon commander, and a good Marine," he said. "So were all of the men whose names are on that hill."