After years apart, military father and son catch up in Afghanistan
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 19, 2017
KABUL, Afghanistan — Carl B. TenBrink and his son Benjamin have a plate of food each and sit talking beneath a large canopy that blocks the sun on a clear April afternoon. It’s a scene that could be of any backyard barbecue in America, only it’s in Afghanistan.
Being deployed overseas and separated from family can be one of the most difficult aspects of military life, but for the TenBrinks, this particular hardship has been eased by their overlapping tours in Afghanistan.
“Our jobs have allowed us to see each other from time to time — probably about once a month,” said Carl, 41, at a barbecue that followed a recent change-of-command ceremony at NATO headquarters in Kabul that his son also attended.
Carl, a chief warrant officer in the Army, has been stationed since May at the headquarters, where he works as the personal security agent for Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser, the commander of Combined Security Transition Command–Afghanistan. Benjamin, 23, an Air Force senior airman, provides logistical support at Bagram Air Field and has been there since late January.
“Before Benjamin and I met up in February, it had been two years since I had seen him because I was stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany, and he was at Hill Air Force Base in Utah,” Carl said. “So it was good to catch up — a little emotional, not only to see him after two years but to see him here in Afghanistan.”
This is the first time Benjamin has been overseas with the military, and while he knew his father would also be in Afghanistan, he didn’t think they would get to spend time together, as they would be on different bases.
“This is my first deployment, so I didn’t really think: ‘Oh, I’ll have a bunch of free time and we’ll get to hang out and be social,’” he said.
In joining the military, Benjamin followed in the footsteps of his father, his grandfather and great-grandfather. Sgt. Burton TenBrink Sr. served in World War II as a tank mechanic. His son, 1st Lt. Burton TenBrink Jr., was in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. Over the years, generations of TenBrinks have passed down their military memories, but this year marks the first time that two TenBrinks have been able to make those memories together.
“Everyone thinks it’s cool,” Benjamin said when describing how his fellow servicemembers at Bagram react when they hear of his situation. “I work for the command chief and he thinks it’s the coolest thing ever.”
But Carl and Benjamin’s reunion in Afghanistan, and indeed the family’s continuous military legacy, almost never happened.
Inspired by the events of 9/11, Carl didn’t join the Army reserves until 2003, when he was 27. About six months afterward, the shop he worked at as a civilian in Michigan shut down, and he was unemployed.
“I explained the situation to my platoon sergeant and he said: ‘Why don’t you go on active duty for a while?' Fourteen years later, here I am still on active duty.”
CSTC-A Commander Kaiser is glad Carl made the decision. He describes Carl, who he calls “Chief,” as “the ultimate professional,” someone his son can look up to as he progresses in his career in the armed services.
“I had the honor of promoting Carl to chief warrant officer 3 while here in country,” Kaiser said. “That alone should tell you how qualified he is. Only an elite few ever get selected for CW3.”
Kaiser and Carl travel throughout Afghanistan often and are frequently at Bagram, the largest American military base in the country, some 35 miles north of Kabul. All but one of Carl and Benjamin’s meetings since January have been at Bagram, and Kaiser has been extremely supportive.
“I, like Chief, have a son in the military, so I know how proud Carl is of his son, and especially the fact that his son is serving in harm’s way, right next to his dad,” Kaiser said. “I routinely go to Bagram for official purposes, and Chief always comes with me as my personal security officer. How could I not be supportive?”
“Never forget,” he added, “the Army, the military, is a family, and I would have it no other way.”
Soon, Benjamin’s military family will be all he has in Afghanistan.
At the end of the month, Carl will return to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. His flight will leave from Bagram and he will likely meet with Benjamin then.
Despite this, both father and son smile under the canopy in Kabul as they eat their lunch. They say they’re happy to have had the unique opportunity to see each other over the past few months while being deployed.
“I’m actually looking forward to going back,” Carl admits, laughing. “He’ll be fine here. He’s in good hands.”