Marines prepare for deployment as part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first major deployment of U.S. Marines into southern Afghanistan.
Marines prepare for deployment as part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first major deployment of U.S. Marines into southern Afghanistan. John Poole/NPR
Lance Cpl. Josh Apsey, 18, waves and blows kisses to his family after boarding a bus for the first leg of his trip to Afghanistan on Saturday.
Lance Cpl. Josh Apsey, 18, waves and blows kisses to his family after boarding a bus for the first leg of his trip to Afghanistan on Saturday. John Poole/NPR
The Marines known as "America's Battalion" are heading to Afghanistan. They are part of the 21,000 additional forces President Obama is deploying in the administration's new strategy for the war effort in Afghanistan. The mission of these Marines will take them to places American forces have rarely been in large numbers. Over the months of their deployment, NPR will focus on the people — the Marines and their families — who will carry the fight in Afghanistan and the burden of keeping life together at home.
The Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment have been working hard, preparing for war in Afghanistan. But over the weekend at their home base at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune, it was all about meeting with family and friends, and saying goodbye.
At first glance it looked like a large Sunday picnic. A rectangular lawn at the base was filled with hundreds of people. In one spot, a family sat in beach chairs talking; nearby, a young couple stood forehead-to-forehead holding each other tightly.
Tom and Vicki Apsey, with their daughter, drove through the night — 11 hours from Tampa, Fla. — to be with their son, 18-year-old Lance Cpl. Josh Apsey.
A Bible And Pictures From Home
Tom Apsey said his son had talked about being a Marine since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, but the family thought their then-10-year-old would outgrow the idea.
"But he continually talked about it, and he started working toward it. It was a goal of his, and he's exactly where he wanted to be. So, as a father, I definitely couldn't be any prouder of him," he said.
With about a year of Marine training under his belt, Josh Apsey said he is ready to go.
"My mom, she got me a journal and inserted a few pictures in there, and she's written me a few letters; and I have pictures of my girlfriend and letters from her, as well; and I have a Bible that I keep that all in right now," he said.
Josh said his Bible is his most important keepsake for this first mission overseas. In the past few days, mother and son read through the Bible together, going over passages from Proverbs and Psalms.
"One of my favorites, Psalm 21: 'Where does my help come from? It comes from the Lord,' " she said.
The battalion chaplain, Lt. Terry Roberts, said it is his job to remind the men of their spiritual side, which is often neglected in the heat of battle. Roberts, a Baptist preacher from the hills of Kentucky, spoke from experience. This is his fifth deployment.
A Line Of Buses And The Difficult Goodbye
The banter between Marines and their family members subsided as the empty buses pulled up to ferry the Marines to the airport. The Marines won't be in touch with their families again until they reach Afghanistan — and then, communication by telephone and e-mail will be difficult.
"You know they have come out with a new machine. It's a one-button, text-messaging machine," Roberts quipped, pulling a pen out of his pocket to make the point that the men must learn to write letters.
The Marines piled the gear onto the back of a tractor-trailer. Then, they lined up and boarded the buses as loved ones clapped and cried.
Before the caravan had rounded the corner and was out of sight, the families had shuffled off to their cars.
At the end of the day, a handful of Marines combed the empty lawn, picking up trash and preparing the same patch for the next crowd of families, who will gather outside the headquarters of America's Battalion to say goodbye.