The surge of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan started early Tuesday morning at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
The first wave of Marines of the 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment said goodbye to their families and headed off to Afghanistan. The deployment came a week after Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the base, warning Marines that the fighting in Afghanistan will be fierce and deadly.
Early Tuesday, outside the battalion's barracks, couples hugged each other tightly while mothers and sons held hands. Clusters of Marines smoked cigarettes and made small talk.
Away from the crowd, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Bouchard, 24, draped each arm around his parents, Debbie and Jeff, who are reluctant to let their son go.
"It's tough, it's tough," said Jeff Bouchard. "But we knew, we knew that it was coming, although we were hoping it was going to be after Christmas. But we know, we know the deal — he's got to do what he's got to do."
The Bouchards folded Christmas into their Thanksgiving celebration back home in Newnan, Ga. They put up a tree and gave their son his presents.
"I ended up getting a laptop that I will not be bringing with. A portable iPod charger which I will be bringing with, and money and gift cards that I've used," Nicholas said with a laugh.
In all, 1,500 Marines will leave Camp Lejeune bound for Afghanistan before Christmas. Because the deployment came so closely after Thanksgiving break, many of the Marines who left Tuesday did not have family present to hug goodbye.
But Lance Cpl. Clayton Blunt got a Christmas present from his parents. They came to see him off and brought along his girlfriend, too.
Blunt, 21, is wearing a silver ring on his finger, one of the keepsakes he is taking. "And I'll carry a notebook she and I share, that we both write in every time we see each other — we write a little bit in there," he said.
Blunt is a squad leader for Alpha Company. This is his second deployment to Afghanistan, and having a sense of the country, he says, gives him peace of mind.
Although this time the weather will be different.
"It's going to be cold. It's already snowing there, so we've been outfitted with all this cold weather gear," he said.
Like Blunt, half of this battalion from Camp Lejeune has already been to Afghanistan. Maj. Heath Henderson, the battalion's executive officer, says that experience will give them the edge.
"That we accomplish our mission and whichever part of Afghanistan that we go to is better off from us having been there," Henderson said.
Charter buses carried away the Marines in the pre-dawn darkness. This unit heads to Afghanistan after watching other Marine battalions return home with mounting casualties.
Nicholas Bouchard has faith that his training will keep him alive.
"He's smart, and he's learned all he can learn, and he'll put that to use now," his mother said. "And he'll go over there and do what he's been assigned to do and he'll come home to us safe and sound."
Until then, the Jeff and Debbie Bouchard plan to follow the progress of the surge. As the buses rounded the corner, the couple held each other and quietly walked back to their car.