A year ago, nearly 1,000 U.S. Marine officers and enlisted men of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment deployed to restive Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. By the time their tour ended in April 2011, the Marines of the 3/5 — known as "Darkhorse" — suffered the highest casualty rate of any Marine unit during the past 10 years of war. This week, NPR tells the story of this unit's seven long months at war — both in Afghanistan and back home.
Fifth of seven parts
Last year, on Dec. 6, Kait Wyatt was up early, making breakfast, when the doorbell rang at her home on the Camp Pendleton Marine base.
She opened the door. Two Marines stood there.
"I wanted it to be them telling me that he was OK, that he was hurt or something along those lines. But I knew," Kait recalls.
"I automatically knew Derek had passed away," she says.
Her husband, Cpl. Derek Wyatt, was serving in Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, known as "Darkhorse."
Kait was pregnant: She was due to give birth in just a couple of weeks, in mid-December.
The Marines began the ritual, and Kait, who was 22 at the time, began to sob.
"I kind of heard Derek's voice in the back of my head saying, 'There's nothing you can do about it now, sweetheart. You just need to be strong and to get through this last little bit of your pregnancy,' " she says. "And so I dried up my tears, and I asked: What do we do now?"
Derek Wyatt had wanted to go to war, and the deployment to Afghanistan was his chance.
"In his letters, he said he had been gearing towards this experience in his life since he was a child," Kait recalls.
As a child in Ohio, Kait says, Derek remembered running through fields and playing war in the woods with his brothers, using sticks as weapons.
While he was in Afghanistan, the 25-year-old corporal called home a few times. But he wouldn't talk about what real war was like.
"It was mostly talking about my day, because he didn't want to worry me or get me too upset, and just how much we loved each other, and how much we were looking forward to Michael being in the world," Kait says.
Michael was their as-yet unborn son.
Before her husband had gone to war, Kait had wanted him to write a letter to Michael. Derek didn't want to do that, because he knew he would make it home.
What Derek did do was to record bedtime stories for Michael. Kait stored them on her iPod.
And so for hours each day, Kait would press the iPod to her belly, so their unborn baby could hear his father's voice — hear him read the bedtime stories.
Making Sense Of The Loss
Today, Kait struggles with the meaning of Derek's death.
As a former Marine, she understands Derek had to complete the mission.
"Derek died the way he wanted to. He went out being a hero, fighting for what he believed in, and being part of something that he believed in," she says.
But she wonders if more Marines — reinforcements — might have kept Derek alive. Afghanistan might be a better place, but was it worth it?
"As a grieving widow, I would say that's great for them, but I lost my husband. Knowing that they have a school to go to is great and everything, but on my son's first day of school, his father's not going to be there," she says.
After Death, A Birth
On the day she learned that her husband died — practically the minute the Marine officers left — Kait made a decision.
"My mom and I got into the car and went directly to the naval hospital on base, where I talked to my OB-GYN and told her what was happening, and told her that I wanted to be induced," Kait says, in order to make it to Derek's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery on Jan. 7, 2011.
So the day after she learned of her husband's death, Kait gave birth to Michael Wyatt. He was two weeks early and weighed 7 pounds, 11 ounces.
"Michael looks extraordinarily like his father. It's almost eerie how much they look alike," Kait says.
At the hospital, the day he was born, Michael wouldn't stop crying. So Kate gave the nurses her iPod, the one with Derek reading the bedtime stories.
They placed it next to Michael and pushed play.
Out came Derek's voice. He was reading Dr. Seuss' Oh, the Places You'll Go!
You'll look up and down the streets. Look 'em over with care.
About some you will say, "I don't choose to go there."
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
You're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.
You're off to Great Places! Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So get on your way!
"As soon as he heard Derek's voice," Kait says, "he stopped crying."