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A New Husband Reflects On Returning To Afghanistan

On a recent night, Josh Apsey is waiting to sit down for dinner with his parents for one of the last times before the U.S. Marine heads back to Afghanistan.

He's a lance corporal with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment -- known as "America's Battalion" -- and is leaving for Helmand province. He returned from a six-month deployment there a little more than a year ago.

But this time, he says, his deployment will be different.

Last time, a Bible his mother gave him was his most treasured possession. This time he's leaving it behind. It's full of sand from Afghanistan, and now his mom, Vicki Apsey, will turn to it for comfort.

Josh is bringing the Kindle he got for Christmas.

"I'm definitely stocking that up with lots of books," he says.

And he'll return to war with a keepsake from his grandfather: a four-leaf clover he found when he was with the Army in 1958.

"He gave it to me, and I have kept it in my wallet ever since. So I'm definitely going to take that with me. It's going to bring me good luck," Josh says.

'I Can Help Anyone Who's New To It'

Knowing what to bring is nothing compared with what he learned on the battlefield in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.

"When we first landed last year, it was kind of a rush, all that adrenaline, and then it was kind of a surprise to actually land there on the ground and to have rounds coming at me. I, having already dealt with that, as soon as we land, I'm pretty confident that I'll know exactly what I have to do, and I'll be the first one to move, and I can help anyone else who's new to it," he says.

Josh is a mortar man, which means he's on the front lines loading ammunition. The Sept. 11 attacks inspired him to join the Marines; he would think about that when he first went to Afghanistan.

Now, he's on the back half of his enlistment and talking more about getting out of the military. His battalion lost 14 Marines. When he came home, his superiors warned him that everyone deals with grief differently.

"I'm not going to lie: There was a period when I went internal and said, you know, I don't necessarily need help from the outside, I don't need to speak to my family about what's going on," he says, mostly because he wasn't sure himself what was happening.

"You might find yourself just sitting there, staring off into space, thinking about something that maybe took place a few months before, and just thinking about how you could have done things differently and how did it play out," Josh says.

He talks about how those deaths left a hole in the platoon and how the new Marines in his unit ask him what it feels like to get shot at. But then his mother interrupts and calls everyone in for dinner.

Helping A New Family Member Cope

Josh was 18 years old when he left for that first deployment. He is 20 now and has a wife, Carolyn. The two sit next to each other at the dinner table. Josh's father, Tom, says grace.

Josh and Carolyn have been married for just a few months. They went back and forth on whether they should tie the knot before he deployed.

"In the military, you're taken more seriously when you're also a wife, compared to the girlfriend," Carolyn says.

Josh says he returned from Afghanistan feeling older than his age and ready for marriage. When asked whether he has talked with his wife about what to do if the worst happens, he looks down at his plate.

"She's kind of putting it off," Josh says. "We'll probably have it here soon."

"Yeah," Carolyn agrees, "the closer it comes."

All through the conversation, Josh's father sits quietly at the head of the table. He understands that his role will be different on this deployment, too.

"I think it's going to be hard, and I think it's going to be hard because of our new family member in Carolyn and helping her get through it. But I think all three of us together, with a lot of prayer and a lot of support, it's going to even it out," he says.

Josh's parents say it will be a little easier this deployment, having been through it before. They won't worry as much if days and weeks go by without a phone call.

But they also know that this time, Josh won't be calling them first -- he'll be calling his new wife.

Copyright 2020 The Public's Radio. To see more, visit The Public's Radio.

Catherine Welch