MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We've been hearing for a while about another military commitment: 21, 000 new troops will be heading to Afghanistan and now they're on their way. Over the weekend, 600 Marines from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina left for war. Their families converged on the base to say goodbye. The Marines are members of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. They call themselves America's battalion. And NPR is following this battalion throughout its mission both on the home front and in the field. These Marines will be heading to one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. Catherine Welch, from member station WHQR, was on the base as they said their farewells.

(Soundbite of crowd)

CATHERINE WELCH: At first glance it looks like a large picnic: this rectangular lawn on base, filled with hundreds of people. Walking through the crowd, there's a family in beach chairs talking. Against the wall of a building, a young couple stand forehead to forehead holding each other tightly.

Ms. VICKI APSEY: This is our very first one. We're first-timers so - little bit nervous, apprehensive but extremely proud of him.

WELCH: The Apseys drove through the night - 11 hours from Tampa, Florida - to be with their son, Lance Corporal Josh Apsey. He has been a Marine for a little more than a year. He is 18 years old.

Mr. TOM APSEY: He had talked about wanting to be a Marine since 9/11 and he was like, you know 10, 11 years old at the time so we kind of just thought that he'd grow out of it. But he continually talked about it and he started working towards 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.

WELCH: And he's ready to go.

Lance Corporal JOSH ASPEY (Marine, 2nd Battalion): My mother she got me a journal and she inserted a few pictures in there. And she's also written me a few letters. And then I have pictures of my girlfriend and letters from her, as well. And I have a Bible that I kind of keep all that in right now.

WELCH: The Bible is his most important keepsake for this first mission overseas. In the last few days, Vicki Apsey paged through that Bible with her son, going over passages from Proverbs and Psalms.

Ms. APSEY: One of my favorites has been Psalm 121: Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.

Lieutenant TERRY ROBERTS (Chaplain, United States Marine Corps): They're men, you know, with spirits and souls, and a lot of times we lose that aspect. But that's what I bring to the battle, is to keep that part in place.

That's the battalion's chaplain, Lt. Terry Roberts, a Baptist preacher from the hills of Kentucky. This is his fifth deployment. He knows how these farewells unfold.

Lt. ROBERTS: Of course, the buses haven't gotten here yet. When the buses get here, the tears start flowing.

WELCH: The laughter is gone. Families that stood in relaxed groups now form tight circles. Time is short now. The Marines and their families seemingly don't know what to say to each other, and they won't be in touch again until the Marines reach Afghanistan. And then communication will be hard. Chaplain Roberts is teaching the men how to write letters.

Lt. ROBERTS: You know they have come out with a new machine. It is a one-button text messaging machine.

WELCH: He pulls a ballpoint pen out of his pocket to make his point.

Lt. ROBERTS: So they're all going to have to learn how to write a letter.

Unidentified Man #1: ...bags loaded!

WELCH: Finally, the buses arrive. It's time to load gear into the back of a semi. The Marines face each other in two lines, handing down, one to another, the olive green duffle bags that have been piled nearby.

(Soundbite of roll call)

WELCH: Roll call - the Marines line up. And with a name that begins with A, Lance Corporal Josh Apsey is one of the first in line.

Ms. APSEY: I know your angels will be watching him over, God. And I just pray, Lord, that you use him according to your purposes.

WELCH: They wave to each other through the window. The buses start rolling, and then they're gone.

(Soundbite of a horn honking)

(Soundbite of applause, cheering)

WELCH: There's clapping and crying, and before the caravan has rounded the corner, families shuffle off to their cars. A handful of Marines comb the now-empty rectangular lawn, picking up trash and preparing the same patch of grass for the next crowd of families who will gather outside the headquarters of America's battalion to say goodbye.

For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch.

NORRIS: We will continue to follow the story of America's battalion and its missions in Afghanistan. We may not hear much from them for a little while as the Marines set up their base of operations, but NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in Afghanistan now. He will meet up with these Marines in a couple of weeks, and we will bring you his reports on the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.

If you'd like to see a slideshow of the farewell ceremony we just heard about, you'll find that at our Web site. That's at npr.org.

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