By U.S. Army Capt. Phillip Mabe
PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Feb. 19 is a special day in the Bowen family, when father Charles and son Robert celebrate a shared birthday. This year, however, the day is particularly significant. Not because Robert is 21 and finally old enough to legally buy beer, but because even if he wanted to, he couldn't.
Spc. Robert Bowen and his father Sgt. Charles Bowen, 43, of Loganville, Ga., are spending their birthdays this year in Afghanistan. Both men are members of the Georgia Army National Guard — assigned to the 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team — and are serving in the eastern part of the country near the Pakistan border.
To mark the unusual occasion, their command gave both men the day off and flew Charles in from Ghazni Province to be with his son at Forward Operating Base Gardez in Paktya Province, about 50 miles away. The men spent the day in a makeshift cinema watching bootlegged movies from a dusty leather couch. That afternoon, a projector beamed a grainy version of The Boondock Saints on a plywood wall.
"This is a lot easier than if I was just here by myself," Robert said, noting that there would be no cake or ice cream on this particular birthday, just movies, Pepsi and a little down time before getting back to work.
While sharing a birthday with a parent is rather uncommon, joint parent-child service in the National Guard is less so. Sergeant and Specialist Bowen joined up together in the spring of 2006. That May, Charles signed a waiver for then 17-year old Robert to enlist. A month later, father followed son into the ranks.
"I said, 'Well hell, I'll just come back in, too,'" said Charles, who had previously served four years on active duty from 1986 to 1990. "I'd rather be over here to take care of him anyway."
While happy to be together in Afghanistan, the two have spent most of their deployment apart. The elder Sergeant Bowen works as a wheeled vehicle mechanic for the battalion's Delta Company in Ghazni, and Specialist Bowen has spent his entire tour in Gardez, first working on a team that mentored the Afghan National Police and later as an air coordinator at FOB Gardez's helicopter landing zone.
They stay in touch, talking every four of five days on their Afghan cell phones to check up on one another or just to chat.
Both Bowens have had their brushes with danger, whether attacked by improvised explosive devices, mortars or small arms fire. But whenever an incident occurs, one is quick to reassure the other that he's safe.
"Sometimes, I worry," Charles said. "But I always just call to make sure he's all right."
Sometimes, they said, the men spend more time consoling Charles' wife (Robert's stepmother), who isn't exactly thrilled about the arrangement. One time, she called Robert to ask, half-jokingly, if there was anything he could do to get his father home.
"I told her, 'There's nothing I can do about it, momma,'" Robert said.
Today, after almost nine months on the ground in Afghanistan, Sergeant and Specialist Bowen are preparing to redeploy home. Neither is sure exactly what he'll do upon returning to Georgia, where Charles once worked as a diesel engine mechanic in Conyers and Robert had a job as a supply tech in Winder. Both are thinking about shifting gears and trying out something new for a change.
But one thing is for certain, they look forward to more days like today, when they can spend quality time together. For starters, Robert plans to "drag" his father to Panama City for Bike Week in May.
"I don't even own a motorcycle," Charles said grinning.
"Well, we'll get you one," Robert said.