Couple strengthens 109th family bond

STRATTON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.Y. -- Like many Air National Guard units, the Airmen here have often referred to the 109th Airlift Wing as one, big family. Many have actual family ties on the base - parents and their children, cousins, siblings, and some have even met the person they would marry on base. For one couple here, they happened to meet in line at the Dining Facility during the May Unit Training Assembly in 2012. Four years later, they were married.

Tech. Sgt. Justin Carkner, 109th Logistics Readiness Squadron, and Tech. Sgt. Abby (Nelson) Carkner, 109th Medical Group, got married in August of this year, surrounded by loved ones, including many from the wing. Chaplain (Capt.) Joshua Choquette, 109th AW chaplain, even officiated the ceremony.

The two started dating shortly after their encounter in the line at the DFAC. After a few short years, a proposal was in the works. Abby said she knew it would happen, but she just wasn't sure when or where. Co-workers were certain it would happen during a trip to Greenland they were both on in June 2015. While a proposal on the icecap in Greenland would've been a unique story to tell, the Carkners wanted it to be at a place they could one day take their children to show them where it all started.

"On June 27, 2015, I had this beautiful ring in my pocket and we went up to Lake George and hiked to the top of Buck Mountain," said Justin.

"Looking back, he was so nervous the whole time," Abby said as Justin told the story.
"The weather was supposed to turn to rain, so I had it in my mind that we had to hurry and get to the top," Justin said. "Everything could've potentially fallen apart if we got caught in the rain, so we kept pushing to get to the top."

Once they got to the top, a couple who they had met midway through their hike was behind them. It was then Justin had the idea for them to take pictures of his surprise proposal. "I asked them to step back to take the picture, and then I grabbed the ring and got on one knee."

"Although I knew it was coming eventually, I didn't know it would happen then - I was definitely surprised," said Abby. The couple took a few months to enjoy the engagement and then got right into wedding planning. Because they knew they wanted a lot of guests from the wing, one of the timing factors was the yearly Antarctic and Greenland missions. The couple decided on August.

The Carkners held their wedding at Pat's Barn in Troy, New York, on Aug. 20, 2016.

"We figured out before the wedding that with all of the military members who would be there, there was over 350 years of service, just at the wedding alone," said Abby. "It was like having one gigantic extended family there, because you get so close to everybody that you work with here. Even as a guardsman."

The family ties for the Carkners don't stop with just them - Senior Master Sgt. Michael Decker, 109th LRS, is Justin's stepfather. Decker's daughter, Tech. Sgt. Kimberly Labunski, is also with the 109th LRS.

"It's every parents dream to have their child actually listen to your advice about life's challenges and to grow up and follow in their footsteps," Decker said. "The 109th has been a part of our family since 1999 and I've been blessed to have not one, but two of our children to follow my footsteps into the 109th family; Justin and Kimberly are both on their second enlistments, still learning, and becoming outstanding Airmen and leaders along the way.

"And now I have a THIRD family member," he said. "Our wonderful daughter-in-law, Abby. I'm sure that most everyone knows Abby from their visits to the clinic, and know not only what an outstanding Airman she is becoming, but what a fine person she already is. I still have the pride of wearing the uniform, but my pride in the 109th family has been kicked up a notch with the addition of another member, welcome to our family Abby."

Now that Justin and Abby have settled into their roles as husband and wife, they're finding out that working at the same unit has a lot of benefits.

"It's great to have that resource and that person who knows what you're talking about when you come home and talk about work," Abby said.

"And we push each other," said Justin. "We're at the same point in our careers. One of us will do something like finish the NCO (Noncommissioned Officer) Academy and then say 'So when are you going to do it?' It's a lot of fun. It's nice because it's such a close family (at the wing). Chaplain (Lt. Col. Jacob) Marvel said it best - he said he knew us both separately, but once he found out we were together, he said it made perfect sense."

There are obvious challenges as a dual military couple, but both Justin and Abby aren't letting that get in the way.

"There's a lot of statistics out there saying military to military marriages fail, 'there's too much adversity,' 'there's too much risk if you have kids and you're in the same deployment cycle' - but I don't see though as hardships, I see them as adventures," said Abby.

"There will be challenges," said Justin. "But challenges just make a relationship stronger."