Rucksack to rotor blades: Career change returns former infantry NCO to Afghanistan as Army Black Haw
January 16, 2014
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHANK, Afghanistan -- As a child, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Young once dreamed of being a police officer. To reach that goal, after graduating high school, he enlisted as an infantryman in the U.S. Army with the intention of gaining experience to prepare him for law enforcement.
A delayed response from a police department to which he had applied, however, turned a three-year enlistment into a 20-plus-year Army career. Along the way, the 11-year infantryman with two combat tours would become a U.S. Army helicopter pilot.
Young grew up in Kingstree, a small town in South Carolina, and lived with his grandparents until age 12, when he returned to his birthplace of Maryland.
"We were raised pretty well," he said. "I was brought up and raised (while) helping my uncle on a farm. I learned hard work, that's for sure."
At age 15, Young worked at a movie theater where security personnel were all law enforcement officers. He would talk to them about becoming a police officer, and they all told him of the benefits of serving in the military before applying to the force. During his high school senior year, he worked as an administrative assistant at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Greenbelt, Md., where his supervisors were all military veterans.
After graduating from high school, his mind was made up; he enlisted to become an infantryman in the U.S. Army to gain the training, leadership development and discipline necessary for a career in law enforcement.
Less than a year before the end of his initial enlistment, Young applied to the Capitol Police in Washington, D.C., but he did not receive a response. He had to make a decision to reenlist or to leave the service.
With just a few months remaining until the end of his enlistment, he decided to reenlist for job security. Ironically, soon afterward, he received the response he had awaited; the letter stated his background check was complete and listed dates for a physical fitness test and civil service test. But it was too late; Young was on the way to becoming a career Soldier and his infantry training would soon be called upon after the 9/11 attacks.
Early in 2002, Young deployed to Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment "Iron Rakkasans," of the 101st Airborne Division, who were among the first U.S. ground forces sent to oust the Taliban. In addition to providing base security and conducting quick reaction force missions, his unit mostly supported Special Forces operations by providing outer security during raids. They also conducted village assessments and shuras.
On July, 2, 2002, as Young was getting ready to go on a mission to provide security for a special operations mission to neutralize or capture a high-value target, he received a phone call that his wife was in labor. Their first son was born later that day. The mission would be canceled due to a dust storm, he recalled.
For his actions in combat, which included leading his squad as the main effort during a cordon and search mission in a village he cannot remember, Young received the Bronze Star Medal.
He returned to Fort Campbell, Ky., in August 2002, but his homecoming would not last long. His unit went on leave in September and soon afterward, traveled to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La., to train for the duration of November. A mere two months later, in January 2003, Young's unit deployed to Iraq to take part in the initial invasion.
"I was trying to adjust to having a newborn son at home; however, that reunion was short-lived," he said.
The "Iron Rakkasans" were attached to 3rd Infantry Division for the push up to Baghdad and eventually settled in Tal-a-Far, where the unit conducted entry control point security. It also manned a checkpoint on the border of Iraq and Syria. Young earned the Army Commendation Medal with Valor while on a mission in Iraq.
"We got reports that insurgents had fired upon a patrol from the Republican Guard Headquarters, so we were sent to take the building," Young said. "As we were approaching the building, we started receiving small-arms fire. As we continued our approach, one of our squad leaders got pinned down by small-arms fire behind a small Toyota vehicle. I immediately ran to his position while returning fire and helped him lay down suppressive fire as we both moved back to a more secure location."
After gaining fire superiority, the squad was the first to enter the building and begin systematically clearing it. Nearing 11 years as an infantryman, Young started to consider his future in the Army.
"After two combat deployments on the ground, I really started to think about life after the Army, thinking about how old I would be after 20 years of service, and realized I would be too old for law enforcement," he said.
Young was a sergeant first class during Operation Iraqi Freedom I when he began considering a career in aviation. His first experience with aviation occurred when he was working as operations noncommissioned officer for 3-187 Infantry. The aviation liaison officer he worked with would often invite him over to the units.
"The pilots were cool and didn't mind an infantry guy hanging around," Young said. "My first impression was how professional and organized everything looked. I got to attend one of their Aviation Academics / Pilots classes, and I was extremely impressed."
Although his interactions with Army aviators significantly influenced his decision, Young considered his Family as he continued to look into changing careers.
"I had a son now, so I wanted to do something more with my life, and aviation looked very promising," he said. "Once I learned that I could become a warrant officer and become a pilot, I felt that would be something that I could do after the military.
"My wife wasn't thrilled with the fact that I wanted to be a police officer. She felt that being a police officer was just as dangerous as being in the infantry. So she was extremely happy when I told her I was going to put in a warrant officer packet to become a pilot."
During his eight years as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot, Young has returned to Afghanistan twice -- first with the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade in 2009-2010 and most recently with 10th Combat Aviation Brigade's C Company, 2nd Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, Task Force Knighthawk. During these deployments, he has flown over areas he previously fought on the ground.
"All the chaos on the ground can be hectic; once you're in the air flying -- granted you're in Afghanistan and people are trying to shoot you down -- it's beautiful," Young said. "It's a lot (calmer), more relaxed, than the planning leading up to it. It's just awesome, especially with the snow in the mountains this time of year."
His new environs have not entirely eliminated the threat of being engaged by the enemy. On Thanksgiving Day, 2009, Young and his crew were returning from a day passenger movement mission and landed at Forward Operating Base Ghazni to refuel. They departed for FOB Shank under night vision goggles as the sun disappeared to the west.
"We were just north of FOB Ghazni when I noticed these huge flaming balls coming toward the aircraft," Young said. "I was on the controls in Chalk 1, and I said to my (pilot in command), 'is there a fire mission going on that we don't know about?' My PC started laughing and said, 'No, those are Dshk rounds being fired at us; break left now!' As we broke left, we started receiving more Dshk fire, this time pretty close to the aircraft, so we did a 180-degree turn away from the fire."
The crew landed safely at FOB Shank and suffered no injuries or damage to the aircraft. The engagement resulted in the crew earning the Combat Action Badge. Young also has earned the Combat Infantryman Badge, but he said he prefers to wear the Expert Infantryman Badge on his Army service uniform.
"That is the badge which I earned back in 1995 at Fort Drum when I was in 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment from 1994-1997," he said.
Additionally, Young has earned the Parachutist Badge, Pathfinder Badge, Air Assault Badge and Army Aviator Badge. It is evident to his fellow aviators that his unique background has enhanced his role as an aviator. His company commander describes him as a model Soldier who is determined and competent.
"With an infantry background and experience as (a noncommissioned officer), he is able to both mentor Soldiers and relay essential information to synchronize aviation and ground force capabilities to best support the mission," said Capt. Lisa Klekowski, commander of C Company, 2-10 Aviation, TF Knighthawk, and a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot.
Nearing 20 years of service, Young said he isn't quite ready to retire. He has decided to become a U.S. Army fixed-wing pilot, which will tack an additional five years onto his career.
"If I enjoy the fixed-wing community, who knows when I'll get out," Young said. "But I do plan to retire someday."
Young recently redeployed to Fort Drum to be reunited with his wife, Amy, and sons, Anthony, 11, and Christopher, 9.