Marine Sgt. Maj. Robert Breeden, at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan on June 12, 2009. Breeden is now home from Afghanistan and trying to stay busy.
Marine Sgt. Maj. Robert Breeden, at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan on June 12, 2009. Breeden is now home from Afghanistan and trying to stay busy. David Gilkey/NPR
The Marines known as "America's Battalion" were sent to Afghanistan last year as part of a contingent of 21,000 additional forces President Obama deployed in the administration's strategy to counter the Taliban insurgency. NPR followed the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment over the months of their deployment. They have since returned home and are settling into post-combat life.
Barbara Breeden has been through nearly all of her husband's 13 deployments — which have included stints in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf and Iraq.
His last one, in Afghanistan, was different. The conditions were more austere. The fighting was intense, and his battalion lost 14 Marines.
For Sgt. Maj. Robert Breeden's homecoming on Thanksgiving, Barbara thought about filling their house, near Camp Lejeune, N.C., with family. But she didn't know how he would be when he got back. So she kept extended family away.
Then she made sure her daughter, Rebecca, understood that things would be a little different when her father returned.
"We just talked about the fact that we can't surprise him," she says, "and we had to remember, when we were out, loud noises were probably going to freak him out a little bit."
When the battalion returned from Afghanistan, Marine counselors asked the families to monitor the men for signs of stress. Barbara is watching — but she is watching a man with more than 20 years in the Marine Corps, so it has been hard to read the signs and know what they mean.
Adjusting To Home
Sgt. Maj. Breeden is uncomfortable in crowds. But what does Barbara make of the fact that for a few days he drove slower than usual?
"I did drive slow," Robert says, "because you don't, you can't drive fast over there."
Or what about the way he shops? He will go in for one thing and walk out with hundreds of dollars' worth of all sorts of things.
Robert identifies with a scene in the war film The Hurt Locker, when the main character, back from Iraq, is overwhelmed by the cereal aisle.
"That's exactly right," he says. "You'll be like, OK, I need cereal. OK, what do I want? I want Cap'n Crunch. Go in there with a plan."
Robert's wife and daughter make fun of all of this. They say they are surprised by how quickly he has adjusted.
Part of what works for him is to be off on his own.
"I just send him out to his shed and let him play," Barbara says. "What if he's out there all day? I don't care. At least I know where he's at."
Missing The War
Robert calls his workshop out in the backyard his "enclave from reality."
"It's dirty, but this is my stress relief," he says.
His biggest battle now is against boredom. Orders for his next assignment have not come yet. So he works on a kitty condo — a tower for the family's cats. Projects fill much of the workshop; carving tools cover the walls; and over in the corner is his laptop.
"Got my Wi-Fi," he says, referring to his wireless Internet connection. "I don't need to come in the house for anything ... unless I have to use the bathroom."
That's fine with Barbara. When she needs him, she knows how to get him.
"Either Becca and I text-message him 'dinner's ready,' or we'll send him a note on Facebook," she says.
This is Robert's life after Afghanistan. He loves the home-cooked meals and being with his wife and daughter. But he actually seems to miss the war.
"The whole time I was on deployment, you know, everybody was waiting to come home. I wasn't," he says. "Because I have a weird feeling that [there is] a very good chance it was my last deployment."
As he gets closer to retirement, he doesn't think the Marines are going to assign him to combat again.
And he will miss it. "I've already told them that there's times where I wish I was back there. Because of what they're going through and what I've already been exposed to and, you know, what I can give back to them," he says.
Instead, he will have to find his home away from the battlefield.