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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Marines in southern Afghanistan are almost halfway through their seven-month mission and they face a tough fight. Already in August, 32 U.S. troops have been killed. The Marines also face the strain of separation from fiancées, from wives, from kids. We've been following one Marine unit in Helmand Province.

NPR's Tom Bowman brought back this report.

TOM BOWMAN: One Marine, after arguing on the phone with his wife, threw his wedding ring out into a wheat field. Another Marine's wife told him she wanted a divorce.

Second Lieutenant SAM OLIVER (Platoon Leader, U.S. Marine): I made him stop and take a couple of patrols off.

BOWMAN: That's Second Lieutenant Sam Oliver. He says the Marine kept asking to go back on patrols, anything to keep his mind off home.

Sec. Lieut. OLIVER: I mean, it's his way of dealing with it. If keeping busy will keep him sane, then I'm all about it.

BOWMAN: Oliver and other officers have been busy focusing on their mission to clear the area of Taliban forces. They're working out of small firebases and villages along the Helmand River valley. Sneaking up on them are the crumbling personal lives of some of the men.

Sec. Lieut. OLIVER: The biggest thing, there's not a whole lot you can do for them. You just got to help them out with what you can as far as bank and everything else, like making sure his finances are okay. It's not like he can go home and take care of his problems. It's something he's going to have to wait four months, you know, before he can take care of it.

Lieutenant TERRY ROBERTS (Battalion Chaplain): A lot of things I deal with are relationship-related. In fact, most things I deal with are domestic issues.

BOWMAN: That's Navy Lieutenant Terry Roberts, the battalion chaplain. He uses a large tent at Camp Leatherneck, the Marines' desert headquarters as a chapel. A crude wooden sign tells the time for prayer service. The wind whips the sign against the side of a tent. Roberts has been on three deployments in his career.

Lt. ROBERTS: I'm 43 years old, so I've got a little bit of life experience with relationships and things. And so we sit down with the young man, and we talk through it and, you know, tell him this is not the end of the world. Good things happen, bad things happen, and we press on.

BOWMAN: There's a whole range of bad things. One Marine lawyer says every now and then, a wife back home will empty a joint bank account. Another cause of broken relationships: Marines who end up dating for a short time, then marrying just before a deployment.

Lt. ROBERTS: I generally discourage anybody from getting married just before a deployment, even if they've been in a dating relationship for a while.

BOWMAN: Do they ever listen to you?

Lt. ROBERTS: Oh, they all listen. Whether they follow my instructions is another thing.

BOWMAN: Some of the veteran Marines, like First Sergeant Derrick Mays, have found a way to make it all work. When we saw him, he sat on a box of rations and slowly told his story. Eighteen years in the Marine Corps with many deployments away from his wife, Marcia. They have three children. The oldest is 17, the youngest, 3.

First Sergeant DERRICK MAYS (U.S. Marine): It doesn't get any easier, but she tolerates it. She always tell you that it don't get any easier. She just has a way of tolerating it and moving on.

BOWMAN: Mays calls his wife occasionally, but finds hearing her voice can make the separation all the more painful. He also likes to record himself reading children's books. He sends the tapes to his 7-year-old daughter, Kennedy. Mays says the family has created its own traditions.

First Sgt. MAYS: We kind of celebrate all of the holidays that we missed once the deployment is over with. So, I was lucky enough to be there for my 7-year-old's birthday. I didn't make it for my 3-year-old's birthday, but those are things that we catch up on once I get back.

BOWMAN: Another Marine has definite ideas for what he'll do when he gets back. Lieutenant Oliver plans on getting married. He struggles with how to tell his fiancée, Hannah, when she should expect to hear from him.

Sec. Lieut. OLIVER: You don't, like, want to say, like, hey, I'll call you on this day, because you don't know if you'll be able to. So it's like, hey, I don't know when I'm going to call you again, probably sometime within the next month, maybe two months tops. So if you do, then it's a surprise. I mean, if not, then nobody's worried, then nobody's freaking out that you're not calling.

BOWMAN: Then again, not calling might not be the best strategy.

Sec. Lieut. OLIVER: I might get home and find out that was a really bad idea. So we'll see.

BOWMAN: Oliver and the other Marines won't be home for some time. They expect to arrive back at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, around Christmas.

Tom Bowman, NPR News.

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