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Face of Defense: NCO Piano Man Brings Calm Over Camp

By Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacia Zachary
American Forces Press Service

FORWARD OPERATING BASE GARDEZ, Afghanistan, May 6, 2009 – Strains of classical music stream from the doorway of a weather-beaten building at this forward operating base in the middle of the Afghan countryside.

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Air Force Staff Sgt. Eric Began, a member of the provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan’s Paktia province, relaxes at Forward Operating Base Gardez by playing an electric piano, April 21, 2009. Began taught himself how to play as a way to pass time during his deployment. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Weismiller

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Housed within those whitewashed walls is a lone Army and Air Force Exchange Service store. Air Force Staff Sgt. Eric Began, a member of the Paktia Provincial Reconstruction Team, is responsible for stocking the shelves and seeing to the needs of those on FOB Gardez. He also has taken on the responsibility of bringing a little culture to this desolate base at the foot of an Afghan mountainside.

"There is little to come by here, but people donate supplies on their way out or the extra goodies from packages from home that get mailed in," said Began, a Lancaster, Pa., native who is finishing up his 6-year enlistment. "Someone needs to be here to make sure what little we have is available. It's the small comforts of home that are stocked."

The store isn’t a busy place, and Began found he had time on his hands. Intent on making the most out of it, he started learning to play the piano.

"In January, I decided that I would teach myself how to play, so I ordered some beginner books and started to learn how to read music," he said. "Once I felt comfortable with the notes, I started out with easy Christmas music. At first, it took almost a minute to find each key."

After a while, Began decided to move on to other types of music. After hearing some classical music, he decided to learn a ballad by Ludwig van Beethoven. Before long, that became too easy, and he moved on to the concerto version of “Fur Elise.”

It is this melody that can be heard most often streaming from the listing doorway, and it attracts the attention of the FOB’s wayfarers.

"I like the spirit of [the music]," said Army 1st Lt. Justin Roman of the 549th Military Police Company here. "It takes discipline to [learn the piano], and is a very productive use of his time. It's important to make the most out of this time away from home."

A self-described jack-of-all-trades, Began is on his third deployment in support of the war on terrorism. On all three deployments, he has been tasked as an Army asset. During his first deployment to Iraq, he provided convoy security as a driver and later as a .50-caliber gunner for anyone who needed a gun truck when leaving the confines of the base. On the second deployment, Began was stationed in Kuwait as a line-haul truck driver.

Both previous deployments dealt Began his fair share of frustration, often without an outlet to relieve the stresses of everyday life dealing with difficult missions and different personalities.

"On my last deployment, I was angry for an entire month, and it took me a while to get over a lot of things," he said. "On this deployment, I was reaching that point where I was getting angry at certain situations, so when this opportunity presented itself for me to do something for me, I took it. Teaching myself how to play the piano has given me a certain calm that is helping me get through this deployment."

One night in the early stages of learning the basic fundamentals of playing the piano, a storm knocked out his building’s power. The pale-green glow of the keys generated by his keyboard's reserve battery allowed the sergeant to continue playing.

"Only the shadows of the keys were visible, but there was enough light that I continued to play," he said. "In that moment, alone in the dark with the rain pouring down, I was able to forget where I was. It was so peaceful."

With only a few months left on his enlistment, Began already has set his mind on his next adventure.

"This will be my last deployment, and that's a good thing," he said. "I have learned a lot about myself and what I want [in life] from my time wearing this uniform. I'm ready to move on to college and other pursuits. Life is short, and being [in Afghanistan] has shown me I need to experience everything life throws my way."

(Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacia Zachary serves with the U.S. Air Forces Central Combat Camera News Team.)

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Related Sites:
U.S. Forces Afghanistan
U.S. Air Forces Central

Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Staff Sgt. Eric Began, foreground, a member of the provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan’s Paktia province, relaxes at Forward Operating Base Gardez by playing an electric piano outside of the Exchange Service store where he works, April 21, 2009. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Weismiller   
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