When Nick Young of Huntsville reflects on his duties in Afghanistan, he can’t help but remember hours of boredom.
Young, a retired sergeant first class, was deployed to Iraq three times and once to Afghanistan, where he operated unmanned aircraft systems or drones.
Early in his career, his job was microwave systems operator/maintainer. Operating UAS, said the Wildwood, New Jersey native who now works as a contractor for SigmaCorps Solutions, was often dull.
His orders on any given day might be to fly and “scan” a certain area for hours at a time.
“Sit in a metal box in back of a Humvee,” Young said. “We would spend all day doing nothing.”
But those hours of work often produced five minutes’ worth of valuable footage, making the effort worthwhile.
He and one other Soldier worked together in the Humvee, one operating the aircraft and another operating the camera.
“One person can do both jobs, but they shouldn’t for a long period of time,” said Young, who left the Army in 2019 after serving for 20 years.
The “box” where they worked was 11-by-11 feet and 5.5-feet high and was often cold inside, “even in the summer,” he said.
The work was monotonous and the instructions were often the same: “Go fly. Go scan this route,” he said. “There’s always something to find.”
How much conversation took place in “the box” and whether there was music playing “depended on who you were working with,” Young said. “You get an idea of what you can and can’t do, and how much you should be paying attention to other things.”
Like many other veterans, he said the hardest part of deployment was “being away from family.”
Young was stationed at Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord) in Washington when the 9/11 attacks occurred.
He woke up late and it took an especially long time for his usual 20-minute commute to work. He had no cellphone at the time and was not listening to the radio news in his car, so had no idea there was a national emergency.
“Me being dumb, young 20s listened to CDs the whole way,” he said. When he arrived at the semi-secure area where he worked, he saw Soldiers in full gear and was required to show his identification before being told what was happening.
“I finally learned what was going on. Things definitely changed,” he said, including the tone of his training. “It became more serious.”
In 2003, he was deployed to Iraq, leaving behind his wife Marcia, now a genealogist, and his son Nathaniel, now 18, a freshman at Calhoun Community College.
Communication with family involved handwritten letters sent by snail mail. “You couldn’t just get on Twitter.”
Early on, Young told his wife not to expect to hear from him often. He did not want the inevitable interruptions in communication to concern her.
“I told my wife I’ll contact you when I can,” he said.
The mission in Iraq was clear but at times while he was in Afghanistan (2011-12), “You really wonder why we were even there,” Young said.
With the recent withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, perhaps that question was answered. Unlike many of his fellow Soldiers, Young does not suffer from PTSD or seek emotional support.
“I kind of feel like I’m over it,” he said. “I definitely know there are resources out there if I need them.”
Leaving Afghanistan “was the correct idea,” he said. “We had to do it. We could have handled getting out of there differently and better. But it shouldn’t have caught anyone by surprise.”
He stays in touch with friends he made in the Army.
For those entering military service at an early age now, Young offers some advice.
“To not put all your eggs in one basket,” he said. “Take it as it comes. You never know what the future’s going to be like.”
Young and his family moved to Huntsville from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, his last station before he retired, upon the recommendation of a friend.
In his job with SigmaCorps, he teaches counter UAS operations to the Marine Corps.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles about Afghanistan veterans.