Staff Sgt. Bryan Fenn, 27, from Mission Viejo, Calif., wears a camouflage Santa hat in the Tactical Operating Center at Forward Operating Base Shoja on Dec. 20, 2011. Fenn is the battle captain and keeps track of all troop movements for the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment in southern Afganistan. Photo by Cheryl Hatch

Staff Sgt. Bryan Fenn, 27, from Mission Viejo, Calif., is surrounded by U.S. mail boxes. His father sent him eight care packages on Dec. 27 and they arrived on Jan. 5. At his feet, Fenn has a feast: Hormel Compleat meals (Spaghetti and Meat Sauce, Chicken Alfredo), Hostess Suzy Q’s, Lipton “Relax and Take a Cup-a-Soup Break” Chicken Noodle Soup, a big box of Kraft Mac and Cheese, cans of Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli.
“It’s supplemental stuff. Easy foods,” Fenn says. “Kind of reminds me of home.”

Fenn is the battle captain in the Tactical Operating Center. He sits on a raised platform at the back and center of the room, master of all he surveys: a half-dozen soldiers monitoring an array of computer screens, a wall with five large flat-screens, a refrigerator stocked with beverages, a map table, and behind him, a rack of guns, checked at the door for easy retrieval on exit. Think Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. You’re not far off the mark.

Pfc. Kevin Swadick, 28, from Oxford, Miss., sits next to Fenn, eating one of the Suzy Q cream-filled chocolate cakes. “Just one,” he says. “It’s the only Suzy Q I’ve ever had in my life.”

“Yeah right,” Fenn counters.

“These guys get happy, of course, because they know they get part of it,” Fenn says. “My mom’s sending fudge. Rocky Road, peanut butter, butterscotch, Heath. These guys can’t wait. Last time they finished it in a day.”

Fenn calls himself “Battle Captain of the Universe.” He’s tracking all movements of “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 companies and medivacs. We know where everybody is at all times.”

“There ain’t much going on today,” Fenn says, then he knocks on his wooden tabletop.

Fenn turns his attention to his laptop.

“Have a look at my latest photo.”

 He pulls up a photo of his four-month-old daughter, Zoey.

“I missed her birth by two days,” Fenn says. “She looks like my wife. That’s my little squishy-butt. I’ve known Zoey for about two weeks. She’ll be about seven months by the time I get home.”

Zoey was born Sept. 2, 2011 in Alaska. If she’d waited just eight more hours, Fenn says, she would have had the same birthday as Kalya, his four-year-old daughter, who was born Sept. 3, 2007 in Germany. He shows photos of Kayla and his wife, Amanda, 31, who hails from Clarksville, Tenn.

“My girls mean everything to me.”

Fenn has a “Skype date” with his family once a week, usually on a Saturday or Sunday. He says communication is so much better this time compared to his other deployments.

“Initial invasion, it was snail mail,” Fenn says. “The other two deployments, in Iraq then Afghanistan, connectivity wasn’t the greatest.”

Now he has access to computers, phones, Internet, Skype.

“Talking to family, you kinda get to break away.”