Why I serve: The Kalkbrenner family

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  • By Tech. Sgt. Chuck Broadway
  • Defense Media Activity

As of 2017, approximately two million people currently serve in the U.S. military with millions of veterans serving before them in the several hundred year history of the country’s armed forces.  All of these service members chose to don their respective service’s uniform for varying reasons.  Many sign up to give back to their country. Others join for a steady paycheck, to learn a new skill, or for the numerous benefits such as medical and education, available to service members. 

For some, they join to continue a family heritage. Such is the case for Marco and Ivan Kalkbrenner, two brothers who chose to continue their family’s legacy of service, following in the footsteps of their father and grandmother. Ivan is an Air Force staff sergeant currently assigned to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, as a security forces member. Marco retired in 2017 as a master sergeant following 20 years of service, also as a security forces member.

While their paternal grandmother began the family’s lineage, it was their father, Anthony Dimitri Kalkbrenner, who instilled the extreme sense of pride and service to the military.

“My father would give you the shirt off his back for anyone in need,” said Ivan. “He was just that type of person; an incredible role model. They really broke the mold when they made him and I’m striving to become more like him.”

Anthony served in the Navy and served 30 years, retiring as a chief warrant officer four, the highest warrant officer position in the Navy at the time. During his career, he was stationed around the world, including stops at Norfolk, Virginia, and Spain, where Marco was born. Early in his life, Marco was engrained in the military culture, inspired by his father’s service, mentorship and discipline.

“When you heard my dad talk, you knew he had Navy running through his veins,” Marco said. “He didn’t force us to be in the military, we did it because that was our calling. I loved the military and serving and protecting the country. My dad had such pride in the military and I saw that and it rubbed off on me and my brother.”

So in 1996, following an unsuccessful attempt at community college, Marco decided to join the military. With aspirations to be a pilot, and eventually an astronaut, Marco trekked to the local recruiter’s office.

“I spoke to the Navy recruiter first, and he upset me because he told me I couldn’t be a pilot,” Marco said. “A couple days later I went to the Air Force recruiter. He was straightforward with me, told me not what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to hear.”

Without a college education, he wasn’t qualified to be a pilot, but was told he could still work on the aircraft as a crew chief. On July 24, 1996, the recruiter offered Marco a guaranteed position as an F-16 crew chief, his favorite aircraft. The catch was he had to leave that night. Deterred, Marco immediately phoned his father for advice who encouraged him to accept the offer.

Marco came home that day to a duffel bag, packed by his father with all the necessities, including a toiletry bag Marco still possesses. At the Military Entrance Processing Station, Marco asked the recruiter if Anthony could swear him into the Air Force.

“I knew when I joined the military that I wanted my dad to be a part of (my career),” Marco said. “My dad really didn’t have a father figure, so I wanted my dad to be a part of everything I did in my life.”

The request was granted, the ceremony completed and Marco was off to basic training.

A job change shortly followed and Marco graduated security forces technical training, where his father attended and pinned his security forces shield on him at Carter Hall.

Marco served in several locations around the world, including multiple deployments to Iraq and Bosnia. Keeping with his wishes of having his father heavily involved in his career, Marco asked Anthony to perform every reenlistment ceremony throughout his career. Without fail, Anthony made it happen, sometimes taking several flights to the other side of the world to complete the task.

“The reason I had my dad involved in everything military, was because he had so much pride serving his country. He instilled that in us when raising us. Take pride and ownership in what you do, both the good and the bad.”

Eventually, Marco became a security forces technical school instructor and in 2008, pinned the security forces shield onto Ivan, in the exact same location at Carter Hall where Marco received his shield 12 years before.

“It makes me proud that my brother decided to join the military and continue the tradition,” Marco said. “Being a part of his training for tech school was cool. He knew me as ‘Instructor Kalkbrenner’, which is totally different than Marco. He had it a little bit harder (than other students). We played a bunch of jokes on him with my team instructors to let him know we were watching.”

Just like his brother before him, Ivan wanted his father to perform the enlistment ceremony. When Ivan got a short-notice opportunity to go to basic training, his father once again did whatever he could to ensure he enlisted his son.

“He would impress upon us, ‘When you join the military, this is what it is,” Ivan said. “You’re there for each other no matter what.’ So my dad dropped everything and took off work, drove up and swore me in.”

Being a military child, and with a brother serving as an instructor in the career field he was entering, Ivan figured basic training and technical school would be a cakewalk.

“The military definitely opened my eyes and it’s a continual process of learning something new,” he said. “But being broken down and built back up, I found a lot of my own weaknesses and made them my strong points.”

Figuring his technical school would be a breeze with Marco serving as an instructor, Ivan received a rude awakening upon arrival.

“He pointed me out to his buddies and they all started smirking,” Ivan recalled. “At that point I realized it was going to be interesting. I feel my brother made it harder on me, not out of spite, or picking on me, but to let me know there’s no free rides. It doesn’t matter who you know, you still have to put in the work and earn your keep. He made it very clear that’s what I had to do from day one. Without that, I probably would have taken my whole career as a free ride thinking, ‘Who do I know to make this process easier for myself?’ That alone was one of the biggest lessons I had. You’ve got to earn your keep.”

Throughout his career, Ivan also kept his father heavily involved, performing every reenlistment ceremony to date. He also called his father often, asking for mentorship through hard times and seeking guidance when needed.

“The whole time in the military, if he was around, I could always go to him. I loved his old school mentality on military things. No matter what the issue was, if I was conflicted, indecisive, or just needed someone to talk to, I would just give him a call. It didn’t matter the hour, he would answer, just listen and after an hour of listening, he would go into a lecture. I needed that in my life.”

Unfortunately, Ivan no longer makes those calls, and his father can no longer reenlist him.

On March 31, 2016, Ivan was on maritime patrol in Florida when he got a call from Marco at 4 a.m.

“The first thing he said was, ‘What are you doing right now?’ I could tell in his voice something was off,” Ivan said. “He never calls me at that hour and I’ve never heard the tremble in his voice like that ever. So my heart started pounding and he asked, ‘How soon can you get home?”

Anthony had a major heart attack and passed away.

“I was completely crushed,” Ivan said. “I’ve lost people in the service before; good friends, people I’ve deployed with. That really shook me. But losing your role model and mentor without getting to say goodbye or ask for some last minute tips on how to live, it crushed me.”

Several years earlier, Marco and his father discussed preparations for when Anthony passed away. When the day finally came, Marco knew he had to be strong for his family.

“When my dad passed away I went into the mode of getting everything ready for the funeral,” Marco said. “After all was done, it started to dawn on me that my dad isn’t going to be there to reenlist me again.”

The duty of reenlisting him could only be filled by Anthony, and with his 20 year retirement date approaching, Marco said it was time to leave the military. He set his retirement in motion, scheduling the ceremony April 1, 2017, one year and a day after his father’s passing, and exactly nine years after Ivan enlisted in the Air Force.

“I wanted to make everything symbolic to my dad’s military career, so my retirement ceremony was all about paying tribute to my career in the military, but also paying tribute to my dad as well,” Marco said. “I had it all planned out for my dad to officiate the ceremony. At the end, he was going to say, ‘I put you in, I made sure you stayed in, and now it’s time for you to go. You are dismissed.’ Every time he would reenlist me he would say that.”

Unfortunately, that never happened. Keeping with his plan to honor his father’s legacy, he went to a Navy recruiter and explained his intentions in honoring Anthony’s legacy. The recruiter quickly volunteered to pull watch behind an empty chair, representative of his father’s presence.

“To be at my brother’s retirement, that my father was supposed to be at, it kind of brought me back and humbled me,” Ivan said. “Being that my father wasn’t there, he had the chair, but no one sat in it. (My brother) had a Seaman pull watch and stand at parade rest behind the chair during the entire ceremony. I saw it and it made sense. I kept staring at the chair, and started tearing up a little bit. He mentioned the chair at the end of the ceremony and that’s when the water works turned on.”

When Anthony retired from the Navy, he made a plaque of the Kalkbrenner’s serving the military and their country. Engraved on the plaque is the names and service dates of every family member who has served.

“He said, ‘I’m passing this plaque on to you, when you retire, you send it to the next Kalkbrenner in the bloodline serving the country,” Marco said. “So when I retired, I had that plaque, put my dates of service on there, and put Ivan’s name on there, with the date he swore in, with a dash and a blank. I presented Ivan the same plaque, and said the same thing to him that my dad had told me.”

Marco transitioned quickly from military service to civilian service as he joined the ranks of the Goldsboro Police Department in North Carolina, patrolling the city surrounding his last military assignment, Seymour Johnson AFB. While he has no regrets in choosing to retire when he did, he still feels the connection and brotherhood he felt for 20 years, often stopping by to say hello to his former Airmen at the base’s entry control points.

“I became a civilian police officer because (of my) service in the military. I loved it so much that I wanted to do it as a civilian as well,” Marco said. “I love the military and have the same mentality my dad had. It’s my Air Force.”

Marco said joining the military and following in his dad’s footsteps is just the ‘Kalkbrenner’ thing to do now. Just as his father before him, Marco said he would be proud of his kids joining the military, but he wouldn’t push them. However, both brothers believe the legacy will continue on.

“I don’t think it’s going to stop,” Ivan said. “It’s only a matter of time before Marco’s kids, and my kids, start asking questions. Then we’ll explain to them who my father and mother were and why we serve. Just like it did to us, something is going to light a fire in them and not make it go out. I hope it makes me as proud as my dad was of us.”