Doubling-up helps siblings at Afghan base mark the holidays
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 21, 2016
TACTICAL BASE GAMBERI, Afghanistan — At NATO’s regional headquarters in eastern Afghanistan, “Merry Christmas” is written in garland on an outside wall and a fake pine tree with lights stands in the corner of the dining facility. Another hallmark of the holidays can also be found here: families.
The small base, which houses about 450 predominantly America servicemembers, Defense Department civilians and contractors, is currently home to two sets of military siblings.
“We’ve been deployed to the same country before but never to the same base, and certainly never part of the same unit,” said Maj. Pete Erickson, 34, next to his younger brother, Capt. Paul Erickson, 27. “It’s pretty cool.”
The Erickson brothers, originally from Maryland and part of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, arrived in Afghanistan in late spring. They both work at regimental headquarters, where they help plan and synchronize the unit’s operations. Working side by side has been nothing but enjoyable, they say.
“I think as the older brother, it’s a little easier for me,” said Pete, who is on his seventh career deployment. “There’s a rank separation that is pretty clear, not necessarily between him and me, but between who I hang out with.”
“I guess you could say I’m kind of his boss,” he added with a smile.
Paul, who is on his fourth deployment and who shrugged off his brother’s comment, said there was no difference between having Pete or anyone else as his boss. But he said having his brother around for the holidays — the two spent Thanksgiving together and would be with each other on Christmas, too — did make a difference.
“In that sense you’re a little bit spoiled because everyone else is 100 percent away from their families, whereas for me, mine is right next door,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Mark Szyman, 32, and Staff Sgt. Nicholas Szyman, 31, can relate.
The brothers from San Antonio, Texas, who like the Ericksons, belong to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, are currently stationed at Gamberi on their second deployment together.
“I remember being lazy a lot,” said Mark when recalling his first and only deployment without his brother. “But having the sibling rivalry, I think kind of helps a little bit — to motivate.”
There was a possibility that Mark and Nicholas’ younger brother would have been deployed with them at the base, but he ended up leaving the military.
“It is a cool experience for us,” Mark said, “but it more helps, I guess, our parents stay at ease.”
The Szyman brothers are responsible for securing the area in and around the NATO base. Next month, Nicholas’ position will take him outside the wire.
“Our parents know that we have each other, so if anything goes wrong — either back home or here — we can easily go to each other and talk about what happened,” Nicholas said.
Despite being together, the brothers said the holidays were still a difficult time to be in Afghanistan.
“It’s kind of hard on me because I got my two little girls back home,” said Nicholas. “But if I’m feeling down and lonely and got the Christmas blues, I can always go over and talk to him, and vice versa, so it does help a bit.”
“Yeah, the holidays are still rough,” added Mark, who got married shortly before deploying.
Besides the two sets of brothers, Gamberi could see a third set of siblings on Christmas.
Capt. Grace Geiger, 29, who works as a public affairs officer for NATO’s Train Advise Assist Command-East and who lives on base, is hoping her brother will be able to visit. First Lt. Joe Geiger, 26, who is stationed at Bagram Air Field, about 100 miles away from Gamberi, visited last month for Thanksgiving.
Joe is on his first deployment; Grace is on her second.
The two say being close and in the same time zone allows them to support and look out for each other more than if they were further apart.
“Sometimes, looking out for somebody doesn’t mean you have to be there right next to them physically,” Grace said. “It can be that you know something is going on. You know they’re having a busy week at work or something like that. It’s really easy for me to pick up the phone and call him at any time during the day.”
Added Joe: “It is comforting to know that she’s as close as she is, especially for the holiday season. Visiting on Thanksgiving definitely made the holiday seem more real and not just another day at work.”
Staff Sgt. Mark Szyman, left, and his younger brother, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Szyman, pose for a photo at Tactical Base Gamberi in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. Despite being together, the brothers say it is still difficult to be away from home during the holidays.
GRACE GEIGER/US ARMY