A Marine Comes Home From War
SCOTT SIMON, host:
We have another perspective, now, on the war in Afghanistan from families waiting for their loved ones to come home.
In December, President Obama decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan as part of a new war strategy. Now, some of them are completing their mission. Throughout the deployment, families only occasionally heard from their soldiers.
Catherine Welch, from member station WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina, met one family waiting for their son to make it home safely.
CATHERINE WELCH: Marines from this base, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, have been fighting some of the critical battles of the war in Afghanistan. On February 13th, they launched a major helicopter assault in Marjah, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province.
First Lieutenant Nathan Nagel told me what happened that day. He says more than 200 members of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment poured off the helicopters.
Lieutenant NATHAN NAGEL (1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment): They were literally landing in poppy fields, running off the helicopter, setting up a perimeter; if there's any immediate enemy in the area, fighting them off.
WELCH: Lance Corporal Nicholas Bouchard was one of those Marines. And right before he boarded a helicopter, he called his parents, Debbie and Jeff.
Ms. DEBBIE BOUCHARD: I think we were driving and he called.
Mr. JEFF BOUCHARD: Yeah. They were getting ready to board the helicopters and go. So we got the call right before he got on board. We knew he was going; that was not a surprise. But youre still not prepared for it. It was just like, we continued driving, but there was a little bit of silence.
WELCH: All spring, the Bouchards followed news reports of the fighting. After a while, they couldnt take stories about Marines dying anymore so they stopped reading the news, and started deleting emails from the Marine Corps.
Mr. BOUCHARD: After a while, you can recognize the tone. And I just didnt even bother.
Ms. BOUCHARD: I've purchased way too many sympathy cards in the last five months.
WELCH: She didnt just sign her name to those sympathy cards; she also signed for her son. The whole ritual pained her.
Ms. BOUCHARD: Standing in front of the cards at the card store, trying to pick out sympathy cards to send to people you dont even know whos lost their sons, is just not something you should have to do.
WELCH: The battalion lost 10 Marines. Nick called his parents a lot during that time.
Ms. BOUCHARD: He told us about the memorial service that they held over there for the soldier. And I was the one talking to him, and I spoke very little. I let him do the talking. And I figured that's what he needed to do, and that's what I was going to let him do.
WELCH: There wasnt much beyond the listening they could do. Their son was part of a complicated and dangerous mission. For five months, he slept in whatever abandoned building he and the other Marines could secure. Through the spring and summer, the Bouchards held on to their belief that Nick would make it home alive.
Ms. BOUCHARD: Stay right there. I can't see.
WELCH: Last week, he did.
Mr. BOUCHARD: I just can't wait to see him. I just can't wait to see him.
WELCH: In a parking lot at Camp Lejeune, a crowd has gathered to welcome the battalion home. They sit in lawn chairs and chat around coolers; the music blares; a DJ has some people doing the Macarena. It doesnt matter that it's past midnight.
Ms. BOUCHARD: This is how it should be. You know, its a celebration and it should be a happy, uplifting time, and it is. This is good.
(Soundbite of yelling)
WELCH: The Bouchards had been waiting in their spot at the front of the crowd for hours. From time to time, they'd talk about whether the war will have changed their son. At most homecomings, buses deliver the Marines right to where the families are waiting. But this battalion chose to get off their buses out of sight, and then march in formation before the crowd. There had been a few false starts. But finally, at 2 in the morning, they arrived.
(Soundbite of cheering)
Unidentified Woman #1: They're coming in.
Unidentified Woman #2: It's for real. Is it for real?
Unidentified Woman #1: It's for real.
(Soundbite of cheering)
WELCH: The Marines parade by in neat rows. You can see every face. Tears roll down the cheeks of some of the Marines.
The Bouchards bounce and weave, looking for their son. Then, Debbie spots him and dashes over.
Mr. BOUCHARD: Welcome home, buddy.
Ms. BOUCHARD: I love you so much. You okay?
Lance Corporal NICHOLAS BOUCHARD (1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment): (Unintelligible).
(Soundbite of laughter)
WELCH: Tears quickly turn to laughter. Jeff hands his son an ice-cold beer. Debbie takes pictures. She says she could tell on the phone that the battlefield has changed him. The question now is, how much.
For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch.
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