The Marines of Lima Company, a reserve unit from Columbus, Ohio, understand war is not just fought on the front lines. Their unit was the hardest hit in the Iraq War -- in 2005, they lost 23 men and over 40 were wounded. Now, five years later, Lima Company has been called to serve again, deploying this time to Helmand Province, Afghanistan -- a Taliban stronghold -- leaving their families behind.
Their stories of hope and loss from Helmand and Columbus offer a new picture of the war, one rarely seen. For those left to fight at home, the war is not a policy debate -- it's an empty chair at holiday dinners, a delivery room without a father.
The Home Front
"My child is going to war. I am not okay."
For Linda Bokros, saying goodbye to her son Dan was the hardest thing she's ever done. "It's just a little knot that's in your stomach and it never goes away," she said.
Lance Corporal Dan Bokros, just 21 years-old, left for Afghanistan with Lima Company's nearly 200 Marines in August. He was married just days before he left for war, and for his new bride, the infantry unit's nearly year-long deployment came at the wrong time.
"It was such a happy time," Christy Bokros said, "And then he had to go."
Christy and other wives, Linda and other mothers, have the same fear. They're proud of their loved ones, but nervous.
"Am I going to get a phone call next week, next month?" Kim Van Deventer, the wife of Sgt. John Van Deventer of Lima Company, asked. "Is someone going to knock on my door? You never know."
For the little ones, it's just as hard.
Five-year-old Sierra Blackwell knows her father, Staff Sgt. Dan Blackwell, is a hero.
"He's a good guy. He's the guy who saves the day."
On the Front Lines
The troops are mostly new, but they all know Lima Company's history. Some of the younger Marines said they're frustrated because they have not yet seen combat. They want to be doing more.
Others' minds are on family back at home. While in Afghanistan, they're missing some of life's most precious, and trying, moments.
Blackwell and his wife Jackie have three children. From the command center in Afghanistan, his biggest concern is not the Taliban, but his 3-year-old son Logan.
Missing Important Milestones
"My son is in the hospital, and that bothers me. I would much rather be with him," he said.
Logan, the Blackwell's middle child, was born with a rare intestinal disease that required a transplant when he was just 8 months old. Since Blackwell arrived in Afghanistan this fall, Logan has taken a turn for the worse.
Jackie sent a message to her husband letting him know their son's intestines were still bleeding. Logan is in serious condition at a hospital in Cincinnati. Seven thousand miles away, Blackwell can only watch from a computer screen, helpless.
"I just want to make sure my son gets the best care possible," Blackwell said. Meanwhile, at home, Jackie said she hopes her son will be able to come home for Christmas.
Another Lima Marine hopes for the best a world away -- waiting for word from home about a special delivery. Marine Sgt. Ken Pompilli and his wife shared the birth of their first child -- a daughter, Reilly.
"It just kind of happened, I'll be due during the middle of his deployment," Melanie Pompilli said in August. "I'm anxious, a little nervous."
Husband and wife set up the crib before he left for his tour.
"I'm upset that I'm not going to be there for the birth," Pompilli said. "A phone call would be nice, but if I can actually see my daughter that would be really great."
On Thanksgiving Day in Afghanistan, Pompilli had a lot to be thankful for -- an e-mail message from Melanie announcing her doctors were inducing labor.
For the next 17 hours, Pompilli was at the helm of a mobile command center for "Operation Reilly" -- the name chosen for their daughter -- inside his armored vehicle. Through a Skype connection, Pompilli watched every labor pain, every push, posting on Facebook, "The suspense is killing me. Still a bundle of nerves. I love you Melanie. :)"
"She sounds like she's in a lot of pain," he said. "I don't like hearing her upset or in pain. It's hard for me to be here and not be able to be there for her and comfort her when I need to be."
Finally, the moment they had been waiting for. Melanie, exhausted, gave birth to their baby girl -- a happy, healthy baby just in time for Christmas.
Crying, Pompilli greeted his daughter for the first time. "Hi Reilly."
"She's beautiful, just like her mom," Pompilli said.
For other families, the holidays this year are bittersweet. As the halfway point in Lima Company's deployment approaches, loved ones and Marines are counting the days.
Christy Bokros is saving a special ornament which she and her husband will hang together.
"When he gets back, we'll put this on her tree," she said. Meanwhile, a photo of Bokros mounted on a stick will fill in at holiday dinners.
"It's kind of humbling," Bokros said. "I should be starting my life right now, but instead I'm here. I think it will make us stronger."
In Afghanistan, Bokros doesn't wait until Christmas Day to open his gifts -- reminders from home, a book to pass the time. He sent a video message to his family back home.
"Seeing his facial expressions make me miss him even more. I hope for the best, I still worry," Christy said.
The families and the Marines of Lima Company are counting the days till they can come back home.
"I just want to get the hell out of here and go home and see my daughter," Pompilli said.
And as for Blackwell's daughter Sierra, she can't wait to see her dad. When asked what she was going to say to her father when he comes home, she smiled and said "Welcome home, Daddy."