Marines Say Afghanistan Forever Changed Their Lives

Dec 23, 2011

Daron Diepenbruck and Josh Apsey were members of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment — called "America's Battalion." NPR followed that battalion in 2009, on the homefront and in battle in Afghanistan. The two Marines are back home now. One left the military; the other stayed in. Their lives have changed dramatically, as Catherine Welch found out.

Daron Diepenbruck was on his last deployment when something happened that changed his life. One of his good friends was out on patrol.

"He was actually on the corner of the building and got hit by an IED," or improvised explosive device, Diepenbruck says.

He heard the blast on his radio. His friend had been killed.

Two weeks passed, and Diepenbruck's platoon set up camp in the same building where his friend died. They arrived at night. When the sun came up, he saw where it happened.

"There was a hole where he got hit, and there was still blood on the ground," he says.

There was a lot of blood and debris. He found scraps of his friend's flak jacket. It was a mess.

"The first couple of times when you pass by it, you just kind of sit there for what might be 15 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute and a half, and you just kind of stare at it and you're like, 'Wow. That's the spot,' " he says.

That was more than two years ago. As it turned out, it was Diepenbruck's last tour to Afghanistan. Now he's half a world away, back in his hometown of Bowling Green, Ohio.

He still has a military haircut, but he sports a soul patch on his chin, wears ripped jeans and cowboy boots, and his arms are loaded with tattoos. His left forearm is covered with the helmet, rifle and boots to honor those who have died on the battlefield. It's mostly for his friends. He has lost so many that he has to stop and count.

"It'd be 13, 14, and then I've had a couple of friends in the Army that have passed. I'd probably put at about 22, 23," he says.

All of those deaths weigh on him, but seeing the spot where his friend died — that's what changed him.

"I have nightmares quite a bit. I mean, I'll go through like five or six, and I'll just wake up and stay up because I know I'm not going to be able to get to sleep that night," Diepenbruck says.

Lingering Anger

He says when he got out of the Marines and moved in with his parents, his temper kicked in. His parents got the brunt of it.

"When I was living at home, that was one of the main reasons I wanted to move out, because we were fighting almost every day," Diepenbruck says. "They'd say something to me, and it would automatically spark me up, and then I went with it ... nothing physical, fortunately."

So he got his own place. Diepenbruck also used to love painting, sculpture and pottery. Now he says he can't focus long enough to draw a simple chair. His dream before the Marine Corps was to become an art teacher. That's gone.

"Honestly, I don't think I have the patience for it anymore. With my temper being the way it is, I kind of get a little edgy at times, and I don't know how well that would work," he says.

To keep busy, Diepenbruck is taking some college courses. But his old life still intrudes. He was in class one day when he learned a Marine buddy had lost a leg in Afghanistan.

"I actually got a text message from my buddy. I pulled out my phone, looked at it," he says. "I ... just stopped for a second, just looked up and ... looked around. My teacher actually walked over to me, and he was like, 'Are you all right?' "

'I Miss The Combat'

Actually, Diepenbruck is not sure he's all right. He thinks he's suffering from post-traumatic stress. He is not getting treatment. He was told he needs anti-depressants, but they're expensive and he doesn't have insurance.

He wants to see if the government will recognize his trauma as a disability. In the meantime, he's piecing together his own therapy. He talks a lot about what happened with his friends who either were in the military or are still in the military.

When asked how he is dealing with things, he says alcohol helps. When he's not in class, he sits at the bar across the street from campus. He's there most weekends, too, watching football.

He has a girlfriend, but his closest friends, the ones he hung out with every night, are still in the Marines.

Even though he lost more than 20 friends and is no longer the person he was when he enlisted, Diepenbruck says he sometimes wishes he could be back on the battlefield.

"Honestly, I miss the combat, I miss all the guys. I miss being a part of something bigger, something there that's changing the world," he says.

Sept. 11 Inspired Service

There's another Marine from America's Battalion who also signed up to be a part of something bigger. His name is Josh Apsey.

When he first spoke to NPR back in 2009, he was a teenager. He was waiting to get on a plane for his first deployment to Afghanistan.

"My mother, she got me a journal and inserted a few pictures in there, and she's written me a few letters. And then I have pictures of my girlfriend and letters from her, as well. And then I have a Bible that I keep all that in right now," he said.

Apsey was just a boy on Sept. 11, 2001, but it inspired him to join the Marines.

His first deployment was a personal mission, as he put it, to face the evil that brought down the twin towers.

By his second deployment earlier this year, the romanticism of a noble cause was gone. What was left was the need to survive.

"My position was changed. I was in charge of Marines, and I had to make sure they were all right," he says. "I really understood, I was like, 'Wow, I could very well have died like so many other Marines did.' There was real danger there."

Ultimately About Money

During this second deployment, Apsey had to decide whether he would re-enlist. Before the deployment, he thought for sure he'd get out. But Apsey had a lot of time in Afghanistan to think about his future.

"I got real with the situation, and I said, OK, if I got out, what am I going to do? What am I going to do for money? What are the things I need to pay for?" he says.

So he did re-enlist. He was 21 years old and just married. At the end of the day, it came down to a paycheck.

Now he gets up early every morning and checks in at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia, where he shows new officers how to fire a mortar.

Most days he's home by noon.

Home is an old farmhouse where he lives with his wife and their two dogs. It's tucked away in a rural area at the end of a dirt road. They just moved in, don't know their neighbors and don't have any friends yet. There's not much to do but hang around the house.

"I have my gear in here, my uniform stuff, a futon if we have guests, and then I have my video games, all my DVDs," he says.

He has a room where he slinks off after work to play video games. He has covered the only window with an Afghan flag, keeping things dark. The flag is a souvenir from his earlier deployments, part of that time in his life when he felt that what he did was important.

Something Has Changed

He doesn't know if it's the abrupt transition from combat in Afghanistan to the routine of job and family that has changed him — but something has.

"Sometimes I just feel like I'm a robot, I'm just going through all the motions but I'm not mentally and emotionally there, he says.

He has noticed that he's lost the ability to care.

"I understand when things are sad, and I know they're sad, and I'm sad for them," he says, "but I can't really break down and cry about it. I can't really grasp situations and react the way I should."

It frustrates him that he can't put his finger on why he's changed so much from the idealistic 18-year-old who went off to war not so long ago.

Apsey is getting counseling through the Marines, and his mother says she thinks it's working. He's home visiting for the holidays, and she says she can definitely see that he's improving.

In 2009, when Diepenbruck and Apsey were off in Afghanistan, all their parents wanted was for them to come home safe. Now that they have some perspective, they realize that the sons they sent off to war did not come back as the same people. The war changed them.

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