KABUL, Afghanistan – Army Col. George Conwill sat in the back seat of an armored truck, leafing through papers before his next senior leader engagement with an Afghan official here.
Dressed in full-battle-rattle, including a Kevlar helmet and dark, shatter-resistant sunglasses, he listened to the convoy leader as they went from mission prep to Readiness Condition 1. Just as the driver shifted the car into drive, Conwill looked up and recognized the operator as his son, Army Sgt. Stephen Conwill.
The Conwills are members of the Texas National Guard’s 136th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade out of Round Rock, Texas.
George is the brigade’s chief of staff, and his days are filled with meetings and updates to the commander about the unit’s goings-on. Stephen works in the unit’s movement team, and he is responsible for safely escorting other soldiers to various locations throughout the Afghan capital.
George has 30 years of service in the Guard, and Stephen has nearly eight years.
Combined, they have completed five separate deployments since 2005, but this is their first deployment together. “Since 2005, we have only seen each other in passing at home in Texas,” George said. “To some degree, I have seen Stephen more during this deployment in Afghanistan than I have in the past decade.”
Since 2008, George deployed once to Iraq, where he met up with his son for a few days while they worked with different units. George retired from the Guard in 2002, and decided three years later to come back into the service.
Another father and son team from the 136th MEB on their first deployment together is Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) James Tillman and Army 1st Lt. Andrew Tillman. James is the unit’s chaplain, while Andrew works as a planning officer at a different camp across the city from his dad’s base in Kabul.
“We see each other about every other week,” James said.
At that rate, the two will meet each other much more than they did back home, where Andrew spent long stints away from Texas working or attending college. The nine-month deployment here might be the most significant time they spend together in the same place.
While James and Andrew work in a city nearly 8,000 miles from their hometown, Andrew's mother, Phyllis, maintains the family business and builds her resilience by having a daily and familiar routine.
“I cope with their absence by staying involved with familiar things, while also taking advantage of being able to spend extended time with my dad in Colorado,” Phyllis said. “I spent the holiday with my first grandbaby in California, I have a "little brother" in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and I volunteer at a local elementary school.”
Andrew’s sister, Janie Palin, had her first child with her husband shortly before her brother and father deployed.
“I am looking forward to them coming home and joining us for my daughter’s first birthday,” she said. “I don't worry about their safety, because I know that they are very good at their jobs, and they are surrounded by others who are the best at their jobs. They have trained and done everything in their power to prepare for this mission.”
Janie added that sending packages and talking via Skype or phone helps to make the time seem to go by faster. “Sometimes you want to send them a little piece of home, but other times, you want to see their faces and hear about what they're doing right then,” she said.
Similarly, George’s wife, Mary, said she keeps up with her son and husband on the Internet and keeps up morale with military programs, supportive neighbors, church and co-workers.
George, who has spent three of the last four Christmases deployed, plans to retire after returning home later this year. While he wouldn’t trade his service for anything, he said, he is ready to be home and to spend time with his family.
“This is my last deployment,” he said. “We have a lot of memories from our tours -- photos, videos and souvenirs. When I get home, I will pick up my life and hobbies where I left off: skydiving and traveling with my wife.”