Marines returning from war arrive hundreds at a time, day after day, crammed into buses taking them back to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
For the men of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment — known as "America's Battalion" — the homecoming is bittersweet. Not all of them made it back from their six-month deployment: Thirteen of the Marines died in Afghanistan.
But as their families gather to await their arrival on a recent day, the excitement builds. The Apsey family of Brandon, Fla., who said goodbye to their son back in May, are eager to welcome Lance Cpl. Josh Apsey home. Apsey turned 19 during his deployment.
"I know I'm going to be welcoming back — instead of my little boy that got on that bus — my young man, my hero that I'm extremely proud of, so I just can't wait," says Apsey's father, Tom.
But he has to wait — the buses have been delayed. Tom and his wife, Vicki, have been waiting for hours. It hasn't dampened their spirits.
"We are very ecstatic, excited, anxious," Vicki says.
The afternoon turns to night — and still no Marines. But their bags arrive.
The Apseys comb through the sea of olive green duffle bags until they find their son's bags. Then they go back to wait for the buses. They're standing exactly where they waited to send Josh off six months ago. But they're in a very different place.
"We were talking the other day that we actually feel like we've kind of aged during this process," Tom says.
"I have a few more wrinkles and a little bit more gray hair," Vicki adds. "And I've put on a little bit of extra weight. ... Gosh, you know, we've earned that, I guess, as parents, you know, really being concerned for our son."
Finally, after a five-hour delay, the buses start pulling up.
It's chaos as everyone storms the buses. Across the crowd, the Apseys find their son, grab him and give him a hug.
"I love you," Vicki tells her son, crying and kissing him.
It's a scene that plays out again and again that night.
Families Left Waiting
On another day, there's another homecoming — more families waiting for their moment.
"It's exciting, isn't it?" says Jim Diepenbruck of Ohio, the parent coordinator for the battalion. "It's giddy, you know, and it's really the fun time."
Diepenbruck spent this deployment taking care of the parents of this battalion, keeping them informed — even attending funerals. He has been divided all these months between worrying about his own son, Darren, and worrying about everybody else.
"Maybe I'll be totally Darren's dad when all the companies come in, and I see all the families with their Marines and their sailors," he says.
But not every family is going to see their Marine. The unit coming home on this day was the hardest hit.
Two families of Marines who died are here. Steve Posey is among them. He's wearing a button with a photo of his son, Lance Cpl. Gregory Posey, of Knoxville, Tenn., who was 22 years old when he died in July. His dad remembers him as a lovable prankster.
"He would loan out anything, sometimes even if it didn't belong to him," Posey says. "He had a good heart."
Posey's son loved being a Marine. That's why the family is here.
"We had planned on being here. We're sticking to our plan," he says, fighting back tears. "These guys meant a lot to us, so we're here for them."
'Just Let Us Go Home'
Diepenbruck has been checking in on the Poseys all night. There's nothing he can do for them now. And, after hours of waiting, the buses start rolling in.
Families rush to meet them, but the Poseys stay right where they are, huddled, sobbing.
"This has got to be so tough for them," Diepenbruck says, glancing back, worried for the Poseys. But he has to go.
He crosses the street to join his wife and greet his son. The Diepenbrucks hug — and start catching up.
"We got delayed, delayed, delayed. It's like ... 'just let us go home, please,' " Darren says.
Now they are home — most of them.