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‘This is my father!’: Civilian dad joins his deployed son in Afghanistan

Army 1st Lt. Spencer Weiss, 30, and his father Tom Weiss, 60, a Defense Department civilian, meet Dec. 15, 2018, at Tactical Base Gamberi in Afghanistan. The two both arrived in Afghanistan this year.

J.P. LAWRENCE/STARS AND STRIPES

By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 18, 2018

TACTICAL BASE GAMBERI, Afghanistan — Children sometimes follow in their parent’s footsteps, but it’s not often that a father follows his son to Afghanistan.

First Lt. Spencer Weiss first heard his father was headed to Afghanistan while serving as a platoon leader at Camp Dwyer in the country’s southern Helmand province.

This fall, his father, Tom Weiss, took a job as a Defense Department civilian at Bagram Air Field. The two met up last weekend at this tactical base in southeastern Afghanistan.

“Actually — at first, I thought he was having a midlife crisis,” Spencer Weiss, 30, said.

“Oh,” his 60-year-old father interjected. “I already had that.”

“Then I thought, ‘This is pretty cool! I get to actually see him,’” the son said.

Tom Weiss has been a military civilian employee for a decade, but first sought to deploy to Afghanistan after reading a July Stars and Stripes article about Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ call for a surge of DOD civilians to bolster the mission there, he said.

He searched online and found an opening at Bagram that would let him negotiate a nine-month deployment instead of a year.

“My little son is here in harm’s way,” Tom Weiss said. “I really couldn’t rationalize that I would sit here, in my perfect life, a beautiful life in Maine, and that I couldn’t come out of it for nine months.”

An engineer by trade, he said he hopes he can make life on the sprawling air base better for soldiers.

U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has gone on long enough that children with little memory of 9/11 have grown up to deploy here. But for the elder Weiss, the Twin Towers falling brought back memories of people he knew who were killed then, and the near-miss of his father attending a meeting at the World Trade Center the day before the attacks.

The younger Weiss was too young to understand the attacks at the time. During the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, when older kids were raring to join the military, Spencer Weiss said he was in eighth grade and more focused on things like learning to talk to girls.

“I think I hoped, like everyone else, that we wouldn’t be in this country 20 years later,” Spencer Weiss said.

The artillery officer arrived here in April and served as a platoon leader with the 2nd Battalion, 12th Field Artillery Regiment at Camp Dwyer, where he led some of the Army’s first enlisted female cannon crew members. He later transferred to Gamberi to help advise Afghan staff officers.

It’s not that uncommon for sons and daughters to have deployed to the country within the span of the 17-year war. In congressional testimony earlier this month, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., nominee for leader of Central Command, said he and his son, who served as a Marine officer, have deployed twice to Afghanistan.

Other parents have deployed here alongside their own children. An Air Force senior master sergeant who works at Kandahar Air Field recently met with his son, an Army captain, at Bagram.

The Weiss pair met up at Bagram a few weeks ago, soon after the elder one arrived. They played pingpong. The father showed his son off to his new co-workers. “This is my son!” he said to everyone.

Although they had spoken from time to time on social media, the distance and the differences between life at home and deployed, in time zones and experiences, made some things difficult to explain.

Tom Weiss worried about his son, too. Whenever he heard of an American death in Afghanistan, he wondered who had been hit, he said.

But after he arrived here, the two could bond talking about life overseas. Spencer Weiss gave his father advice on base life, such as how to get internet overseas, and explained how living at the largest American base in the country is not exactly roughing it.

Soon, Spencer Weiss will return home and his father will be the one overseas. The son will be the one worried whenever there is bad news.

Before that happens, the two will be spending Christmas together.

On Tom Weiss’ visit to see his son at Gamberi on Saturday, he swung his arms boyishly behind his back, clapping at his waist.

“He does that when he talks about his kids,” Spencer Weiss said. He spent the visit introducing his visitor to his coworkers, just as his father had done earlier.

“This is my father!” he said.

lawrence.jp@stripes.com
Twitter: @jplawrence

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