RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've been following the Dark Horse Battalion this year. NPR's Tom Bowman has brought us a series of stories on the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment of the Marine Corps. They fought in the deadliest place in Afghanistan, Sangan in Helmand Province.
The Dark Horse Battalion is home this Christmas and we reached out to one of them. Staff Sergeant James Foley joined us by phone from Camp Pendleton here in Southern California and shared memories of what he was doing this time last year.
SERGEANT JAMES FOLEY: Last Christmas was - we got a small, probably one to two foot Christmas tree in the mail and we set it up in our patrol base and decorated it as best as we could and that's kind of how we spent our Christmas. But it was also filled with, you know, standing security and all the other stuff that comes with being in a combat zone.
MONTAGNE: Were you able last Christmas to feel like it was Christmas?
FOLEY: You know, I'm sure some Marines felt that way. I kind of - I knew there was a tree there, but no, to me it didn't feel like Christmas. It just felt like another day.
MONTAGNE: So this year you're with your family there in Camp Pendleton. How old are your kids, and I mean, how excited are they to have their dad back?
FOLEY: Oh, they're really excited. My oldest, my daughter is seven, and my two boys, they're four and three, definitely had a family moment decorating the tree and setting up all the decorations, so they're definitely enjoying me home.
MONTAGNE: So the tree this year, I'm guessing, quite a bit bigger and more festive.
FOLEY: Oh, absolutely.
MONTAGNE: Do you know what the rest of your platoon that you spend last Christmas with in Afghanistan, do you know what the rest of those guys are doing?
FOLEY: Oh, I know a lot of them have flown home. Several Marines live out in Illinois and Texas and they're all excited to be home with their families.
MONTAGNE: At a time like this, when you're celebrating the holidays, and you're able to at home with your family, as are many of your other Marines, do you think also back about those who didn't come back?
FOLEY: You know, I do. In fact, just last weekend we went out to Texas and saw the grave of one of my Marines that didn't make it back, and you know, I definitely think about them all the time. I just remember what they sacrificed for us to be able to come back and to spend the holidays with the family. Soâ¦
MONTAGNE: You've been home months now. Do your kids remember that you were gone? They're so little.
FOLEY: I think my oldest, the seven-year-old, she, you know, she knows that I was gone. And the boys, you know, I'm sure they remember I was gone for a while, but I don't think they really understood it. But my daughter, I know she understood and she knew where I was and all that stuff.
MONTAGNE: So I'm wondering if she's particularly excited that you're home. Has she said anything?
FOLEY: Yeah, you know, she's in the second grade, so she's - you know, she's getting used to the writing and reading and stuff, so she likes to write a lot of â I don't know â letters to Santa. She wrote in one letter that she - she thanked Santa for letting me be home this year. So I know she's definitely happy.
MONTAGNE: The one nice story that I understand about you is now after four deployments you are now going to become a commissioned officer.
FOLEY: That's right, I'm selected for the MECEP program which is the Enlisted Commissioning Education Program, so I'll be paid to go to school and get my degree and then I'll commission as an officer in the Marine Corps.
MONTAGNE: So that means that with a few years of college ahead of you, you have a few more Christmases together that you can be sure of with your kids.
FOLEY: Yeah, I would say so, yeah.
MONTAGNE: Well, listen, happy holidays to you.
FOLEY: Well, happy holidays to you.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, and thank you for your service.
FOLEY: Oh, thank you.
MONTAGNE: Marine Staff Sergeant James Foley of the Dark Horse Battalion, speaking from Camp Pendleton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.