Coming Home: How 3 Marines are returning to normal life

Coming Home: Marines return from Afghanistan

In our new series, Coming Home, we follow the lives of our nation's bravest as they return from war. More than 15,000 American service members are stationed in Afghanistan more than 16 years after the U.S. involvement there began. Of the 2.7 million men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than half were deployed at least twice. CBS News' Jan Crawford sat down with three Marines just back from a deployment to Helmand Province to learn about the difficulties of returning to normal life.

Images of the joy, love and relief of coming home never get old. For the Marines of Task Force Southwest, the sacrifices to get to the moment the reunion with their loved ones started almost a year ago when they arrived in Helmand Province. Capt. Tamara Watkins and Majs. Paul Rivera and Ethan Krumnow were part of the first marine unit to set foot in the region since combat operations ended there in 2014.

With 13 overseas deployments between them, these three are from very different backgrounds. Rivera is a Texas transplant with more than 20 years' experience, Krumnow is a Wisconsin family man whose flown missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Watkins, part of the roughly eight percent of the corps that is female, is a logistics officer who joined ROTC during college in Florida.

Marines talk "big picture" of why U.S. is still fighting in Afghanistan

But all three have felt a similar call to serve. The purpose of their most recent mission in one of the country's bloodiest regions was to help Afghan forces regain the upper hand over the Taliban. After nine months it was time to go home. Their anxious families waited a day's long journey away at Camp Lejeune. We followed the meticulous process of their four-hour reentry, overseen by Watkins.

"I've been staring at the same nine-month-old photos of them so I think it'll really sink in like when going to pick them up," Krumnow said on the bus to Camp Lejeune.

"This is the first deployment they actually remember.… It was challenging sometimes," Rivera said of his kids.

Finally, the moment arrived. Krumnow's son couldn't get over the sound of his dad's voice. He thought he sounded different. Rivera forgot how much he missed the hugs.

But before they could settle in, the Marines must first brief their superiors in Washington. We sat down with them inside the Pentagon, while their mission was still fresh.

"I think you just have to look at the big picture as a whole. What we do on the small level affects everything that is much larger," Watkins said.

Majs. Ethan Krumnow (left) and Paul Rivera (right) reunite with their families.  CBS News

Their service has meant missing anniversaries, birthdays and other milestones. In 2010, Krumnow was stationed overseas when his wife gave birth to their first baby girl.

"That was rough. Like, you just feel like, I'm not holding up my end of the deal. You're gonna have to do this on your own," he said. "There's a little adjustment there, right? 'Cause I'm basically a stranger."

"The biggest thing is just that mom's been running the show for nine months. You're now there. And mine do look at me as soon as mom starts, you know, 'Hey you guys need to get this done.' I'll pop my head around the corner. And then they kinda see me. And then they're like, "oh, dad's there now," Rivera said.

Capt. Tamara Watkins CBS News

Even without children, a return to regular life is an adjustment.

"I think I spent two hours the first time I went into the grocery store. I walked….As slow as possible. I looked at every item," Watkins said. "Gym, work, sleep, eat. And that's, like, the four things for nine months. So when you come back, you have all these things you can do. Almost to an overwhelming extent."

As active duty Marines, all three could deploy again.

"Nobody's excited to leave their family. But you also know that if there is a job that has to be done, you kinda want to be the one to get called up for it," Krumnow said.

And the next time that call comes, the promise of coming home will sustain them.

"If you just take a step back off to the sidelines for a second and watch everyone else receive their family in that moment it is, like, genuinely one of the happiest times," Watkins said.

After a short break, the journey continues for the three Marines. Capt. Watkins plans to move to California where the Marines will help her get a master's degree in operational analysis. Maj. Krumnow will rejoin his unit in North Carolina, where he'll go back to flying. Maj. Rivera will soon receive new orders that will likely mean he and his family will have to pack up and relocate.

You can find us on Twitter at @cbsthismorning. Use #ComingHomeCTM to share your own coming home story, or tell us about someone you love.