CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait -- The 401st Army Field Support Brigade's Unit Ministry Team returned home Oct. 18 after an 18-month deployment at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.
Chaplain (Maj.) Mark Thompson and his Chaplain Assistant, Staff Sgt. Brittney Sickmann deployed to Kuwait in April 2015. They frequently traveled throughout the U.S. Army Central Command footprint in support of all battalions under the 401st AFSB.
While an 18-month deployment may already sound like a particularly long adventure, this team's adventure actually began about six years ago. Thompson and Sickmann have been together as a team since 2011.
"The first time I saw her I could see that she was driven to be a professional and to be as good as she could be, and really needed to be in a Unit Ministry Team," Thompson said.
Sickmann affectionately refers to Thompson as Chappy, a nickname that has come to reverberate throughout the brigade.
"When I first met Chaplain Thompson I was actually in a different reserve unit, but his unit needed a chaplain assistant," Sickmann said. "He came and found me and we went for a walk and just talked to each other.
"Chappy told me, 'I'm a neat freak.' I was a little confused but then he said, 'I see neat things, and I take them. You're neat, so I'm taking you.' Then we did all the paperwork and I've been with him ever since."
Both Thompson and Sickmann are Army Reservists from Minnesota.
Sickmann is originally from New Prague, Minnesota. She enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2009 as a Chaplain Assistant. She works as a ramp agent at an airport for her civilian job. Sickmann is the youngest Soldier in the brigade at 25 years old.
She re-enlisted in June, 2016 for an additional three years of service.
"My goal for the future is to serve at least a full 20 years in the Army," Sickmann said. "I sincerely love the military. I love our country. I love my job. I love what I get to do.
"Soldiers are so unique in who they are personally -- why they join and their mission -- and being able to support them and work alongside them for a common goal, whether they realize it or not, we're doing something great, and I love everything about that."
Born in Mankato, Minnesota, Thompson's hometown is now Brownton, Minnesota, where he's a pastor at a small church. Thompson enlisted in the Army in 1990 as a teletype repair specialist, then commissioned as a chaplain in 1998.
"Being in commo -- it was really good work and good people -- but I just felt I needed to be more involved with Soldiers rather than equipment," Thompson said. "I think the most gratifying thing for me is helping somebody see a better day. I like to encourage people and get them to smile. I just like making people's day little bit better."
Thompson and Sickmann are seldom apart. They could be seen together traversing the brigade landscape greeting people and smiling on a daily basis. When they are back home in Minnesota, they stay close to one another.
"I consider him family. He's definitely old enough to be my dad," Sickmann quipped. "Since we're reservists we have a civilian life, too. Back home, our families are friends. We spend time together as a big family. We celebrate New Year's together, which is something we've been doing since 2013."
The closeness of their respective families helps them better take care of each other when deployed, Thompson said.
"Her dad is probably my best friend and my wife is great friends with her mom," he said. "We share time together. You have to know each other beyond the office.
"It's important to know where a person comes from in order to know how to treat them to bring them into the best light -- what to protect them from and what to push them forward to."
Although Thompson is the older and more senior ranking of the two, Sickmann spends plenty time taking care of her mentor.
"We're always there for each other. When he's stressed, I can pick up on it," she said. "I know that he needs coffee every day and he needs to talk to his wife every day. If he doesn't have both of those I can see it on his face.
"I've learned his body language, his facial expressions, his tone of voice, and I know when something isn't right with him. And it's the same the other way around. He knows right away if something is bothering me, too."
One of the main pillars of a Unit Ministry Team is to provide or perform. If the team doesn't have the capability to perform a religious function, it's their responsibility to provide a means of satisfying that Soldier's religious need.
"If we are unable to perform, our job is to find someone who can perform and still provide that support that they need," Sickmann said. "So, if a Soldier comes up to me and they happen to be Hindu and looking for a Hindu prayer group or something similar -- our chaplain is obviously not Hindu so I would be able to point them in the direction of the support they are looking for in their faith."
Thompson echoed this philosophy.
"People might think they can't come talk to me because they either have a different faith than me or they think I'm going to say something religious like tell them to read the Bible or pray more," Thompson said. "Those two things are not accurate when it comes to my chaplaincy.
"My counsel, my support, my talking to people is more of a holistic humanity approach. For me, it's based in my Christianity, but typically it's not a deeply religious meeting that I have with people, but it's to get them on their feet and moving forward to feel better throughout their day."
The foundation of their support to the unit can be summed up in one word: Love.
"I just love all the people. I love soldiers. I love the civilians," Thompson said. "I love everybody I interact with. So, when people come to me, what I try to push forward from my perspective is that you are loved. You are cared for, and we can highlight a positive outlook in your life.
"Maybe that's why she and I get along so well. She just loves everybody. Everybody is welcome. Everybody is a friend."
Sickmann and Thompson share a philosophy, an office and a home state in Minnesota. Perhaps one of the most interesting things they share is a love for beer.
Sickmann said she considers herself somewhat of a beer connoisseur. She brews her own beer in Minnesota five gallons at a time, and dreams of opening her own brewery in the future.
"It's not just drinking it," Sickmann said. "I love the process of making it -- the smell of it, the bottling process, the waiting and anticipation, and then the sharing with friends and family."
Sickmann's aunt and uncle bought her a home-brewing kit for Christmas in 2014. Her favorite style of beer is a porter.
One thing Sickmann and Thompson don't share is their favorite style of beer.
"I'm a stout guy," Thompson said. "She brews a bunch of different kinds but I've had one her stout beers, and it's really good. It has her own touch to it, so it's not like anything you'll find at a bar. She's got some good beer going on.
"She's just as meticulous about her brewing as she is her job in the Army. She doesn't do anything without knowing everything she can about it, and when she's involved with whatever she's doing she continues to make herself better at it. It's never good enough. She always pushes to be the best."
Upon returning home from their 18-month deployment with the 401st AFSB, Thompson and Sickmann are poised to go to different units -- separating for the first time in more than half a decade.
"We are looking at splitting up when we get back home to broaden our careers, but if the Army is gracious enough to put us together again I'll gladly take it," Sickmann said. "He's the best chaplain I've ever known."
Thompson became rather somber when speaking about the impending separation.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. I really don't," Thompson said. "After six years with her it's not a matter of telling people about how good she is to convince them, but to let them know that they are not going to find another assistant in a UMT as talented as this girl."
Asked if there was anything in particular he wanted Sickmann to know, Thompson said, "Basically I really love the girl, and I do not want her to not be part of my team -- ever.
"This has been the best deployment I've ever had or could have ever imagined because she's been here with me. If there's a spot open for me anywhere down the road and I needed an assistant and I could pick anybody in whole world, it would be Brittney Sickmann."