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"Thundering Third" Victories Come at Huge Cost

As part of our continuing coverage of "Afghanistan: the Road Ahead," CBS News correspondent Terry McCarthy follows the Third Battalion, First Marines at home, and abroad in Afghanistan.

Garmsir, Afghanistan - In Afghanistan, roadside bombs killed two more NATO service members Tuesday. Seven hundred nine NATO soldiers have been killed in 2010, the most of any year of the war. More than two-thirds were Americans.

That mounting toll shadows every mission against the Taliban including those of the 3rd battalion, 1st Marines.

It was, for many, the fight of their lives, 148 Marines from Weapons Company were sent to push the Taliban out of a five-by-three-mile strip of poppy and wheat fields. In the seven months of fighting 13 were seriously injured. Three died.

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We followed one nine-man squad, Crusher One. They saw some of the heaviest fighting. It would change them forever.

The Taliban threw everything they had at these Marines, never letting up. In May, Sgt. Jim Morse had to break off an interview with us when the Taliban attacked just outside this base.

Sgt. Jim Morse: "That sounds like our patrol is taking contact."

Terry McCarthy: "Yeah, some bad guys. You need to leave?"

Morse: "I do, I do."

Standing with Staff Sgt. Paul Worley on a roof, Morse said, "Original shots were west, northwest, engaging our patrol. We don't have an exact fix."

The Marines on that roof quickly scared the Taliban off. In June, Crusher One, outnumbered four to one by the Taliban, almost got overrun on a patrol that turned into a four-day firefight.

"There was a few times where I was wondering if many of us were going to get out safely," said Morse. "I had my doubts a couple of times."

The Taliban fighters came so close to the unit that Cpl. Jacob Schmitt had to toss grenades at them just a few yards from their position.

He said, "You know if you can get through this, what else can life throw at you, really?"

The Marines fought the Taliban off. Nobody was killed but five men were medevacked, including Worley, the squad leader, who was shot in the leg.

"I guess when it first happened I didn't realize exactly what happened, I just knew my leg got taken out from under me," said Worley.

After his leg wound Worley, a former tobacco farmer from North Carolina, was told he could fly back to the U.S. to recover. He refused, insisting on returning to his squad after a week.

"The fact of the matter is that I love the guys that I work with," said Worley. "I mean love them, and you know I am not going to let them go through trials and tribulations without me."

When we caught up with these men again in October, they had pushed the Taliban back and spent more time talking than shooting.

Six months ago when we first came here this road was controlled by the Taliban and Marines took fire every time they came here. Now they drive up and down this road every day but that progress has come at considerable cost.

In May, Cpl. Jeffrey Johnson and Sgt. Kenneth May were killed by an IED attack that left a waist-deep crater in the road. In July, Cpl. Larry Harris from the Mortars platoon was killed as he carried another wounded Marine on his back to a medevac helicopter. He has been nominated for a silver star for his bravery.

"When you're back in the States, everything is given to you," said Lance Cpl. Joshua Echelson.

Echelson, from Florida, is 20 years old. He has learned to fight for his life.

"When you come out here, it is about survival," he said. "It really is. And that definitely changes you."

Schmitt, from Belleville, Wis., was on his first combat deployment. Like the other young Marines he has become a bit wiser, a bit humbler, and a lot closer to his buddies.

"You know you train for it, you prepare all you can physically, mentally, you come here, but just one day it actually hits you, you know, how short life is, how delicate it is," said Schmitt.

As peaceful as their territory is now, the Marines of Weapons Company will never forget the fights they got in or the friends they lost. After that four-day firefight when they were nearly overrun the Marines left standing took a picture.

"The picture doesn't convey the intense fatigue," said Morse. "Most of us were swaying as the picture was taken, having a hard time standing up at that point. A lot of them went in boys and came out men. That's for sure."

It was a war that changed them all.