CAMP PHOENIX, Afghanistan — Col. Tom Brewer recently walked into the dining facility at Camp Phoenix in eastern Kabul.
“Where are my knuckleheaded nephews?” he asked good-naturedly, scanning the room.
A longtime Nebraska National Guard member who is now an Army Reservist, Brewer stays busy with his job fighting the drug war in Afghanistan.
Still, he tries to stop by the base once a week or so to check in on his nephews: Sgt. 1st Class Steve Brewer, 28; Staff Sgt. Tim Brewer, 27; and Sgt. Bob Brewer, 25. Tim grew up in Gordon and still lives there today. Bob and Steve grew up in Elwood, Neb., and both now live in Lincoln.
Their mother, Duana Landreth and her husband, David, live in Elwood. Their father, Jeff Brewer, lives in Gordon.
The Brewer boys are all at Camp Phoenix now, deployed with the Nebraska Army National Guard's 1-134th Cavalry Squadron.
They gathered around one of the chow tables with their uncle, who dispensed advice on careers, retirement and other topics. They also swapped hunting stories and news from home.
Because National Guard units are state-based and usually tied to specific towns, guardsmen often serve alongside neighbors, co-workers and even members of their immediate families.
It's commonly thought that the military prohibits immediate family members from being deployed to a war zone in the same unit, out of concern that they could be wiped out in a single incident, the way Iowa's five Sullivan brothers died when their ship was hit by a torpedo during World War II.
That's a fear that weighs on the Brewers' father.
Jeff Brewer imagines a rocket strike or some other terrible event befalling his three sons.
“And I can't help but worry that if something was to happen to one of them in close proximity to their brothers, the psychological effect it would have on them,” he said.
While the Guard tries to keep family members from riding in the same vehicles on missions, it places no real restrictions on immediate family members serving in the same unit.
In fact, when possible, the Guard tries to accommodate family members seeking to serve together — it's seen as contributing to unit cohesion.
“One of the strengths of the Guard is that we are a community-based organization,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Navrkal, Nebraska's assistant adjutant general.
The Brewers said having one another around is like having a bit of home on deployment. They appreciate being able to confide in one another.
“It's just nice to have family,” Steve Brewer said.
Here is a sampling of other fighting families deployed together:
Sgt. Thomas Hall, 29, of Omaha Ÿ Spc. Jesse Hall, 24, of Omaha
Unit: Iowa Army National Guard's 1-168th Battalion
It's tough sometimes having your little brother in a war zone — even when he's right alongside you.
Sgt. Thomas Hall knows that all too well.
“You're always going to worry about him,” Hall said. “You're always going to protect him.”
Spc. Jesse Hall followed his older brother into the Army National Guard after graduating from high school.
Thomas Hall had been in the Guard during high school. He tried the active duty Army after graduation but returned to the Guard after three years, and he encouraged his brother to do the same. Their parents, Gary and Jeannie, live in Blair.
As long as both brothers were being deployed, they wanted to serve together.
At first, they tried to keep their relationship quiet. The rest of the unit thought it was just a coincidence that Jesse and Thomas had the same last name. Eventually, word got out.
The two frequently go on missions together. When Thomas was in a firefight in January, the first thing that went through his mind was, “Where's Jesse?”
After a few minutes, Thomas was relieved to realize his brother wasn't on that mission.
“Then I could focus more on what I was doing,” he said.
Sgt. Andrew Brodahl, 23, of Fremont Spc. Adam Brodahl, 23, of Norfolk
Spc. Aaron Brodahl, 23, of West Point
Unit: Nebraska Army National Guard's 623rd Engineer Company
The Brodahl triplets are used to being at each other's side.
They used to wrestle together.
They took the oath together when they joined the military.
They went to war together.
“We've done everything our whole lives together,” Adam said.
One thing they didn't go through together, however, was basic training. Those few months were the longest they've ever been apart.
But now they're together again in Afghanistan, serving at Forward Operating Base Sharana.
Their company is responsible for various construction projects around the base and at remote combat outposts in the region.
Andrew said that without his brothers, this deployment would drag on forever.
“We try to hang out as much as we can,” he said. “Out here, you don't know how much time you have because you don't know what'll happen.”
Sgt. Kyle Kunkee of Lincoln
Spc. Kimberly Kunkee of Lincoln
Unit: Nebraska Army National Guard 623rd Engineer Company
Kyle Kunkee was in the Marine Corps in 2003 when he was deployed to Iraq as the “tip of the spear.”
He and Kimberly were married a year and a half ago. A member of the Nebraska Army National Guard, Kimberly also wanted to deploy.
So they both signed up to go to Afghanistan with the 623rd Engineer Company, which was sent to Forward Operating Base Sharana.
They shipped off a little more than two weeks after their first anniversary.
“I said, ‘If you go, I go,'” said Kyle, who's an equipment operator.
They go to supper together each night and to church on Sundays. They watch movies together.
They aren't allowed to share the same room, though.
Kyle noted that a lot of the soldiers stay up until all hours to Skype with their families back home.
“I get to talk to my wife every day and see her every night,” he said. “It's a lot more comforting.”
Although Kyle outranks Kimberly, he said he's not about to start giving her orders.
“I might outrank her in this,” he said pointing to the stripes on his chest. “But she's still the boss. I might be a four-star general, but she'd still be the boss.”
FATHER AND SON
Pfc. Andrew Starkey, 22, of Council Bluffs
Spc. Steve Starkey, 40, of Council Bluffs
Unit: Iowa Army National Guard's 1-168th Battalion
Pfc. Andrew Starkey says he worries a lot less with his dad sharing his deployment.
If the two had been sent to different bases, he said, he would fret about his dad's safety.
“I don't have to worry about that, because I see him three times a day,” Andrew said.
In fact, Andrew was originally in the Nebraska Guard, but when it looked like he was going to be deployed, he switched to the Iowa Guard so that he could deploy with his father.
The two are at Combat Outpost Herrera in Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan.
Andrew works in the chow hall. Steve works down the hill as a mechanic.
They say they feel lucky to have one another on deployment and noted that other soldiers have to call halfway around the world to visit with a family member.
“I just have to walk down the hill and say ‘Yo, Dad,'” Andrew said.
“The hardest part is missing family,” Steve said, “and having your kid here kind of alleviates that.”