Military missionary - A priest in Afghanistan

A Pillar interview

As a young Marine, Andrew Young was part of the first wave of America’s military to enter Afghanistan, just months after September 11, 2001. After tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Young became a priest, and returned to military service as a Navy and Air Force chaplain.

Fr. Young spent much of 2020 in Afghanistan, as one of the last Catholic U.S. military chaplains in the country. Now vicar general of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Fr. Young talked with The Pillar about his military and chaplaincy service, and the pastoral needs of America’s veterans.

This interview took place August 25, before a terrorist attack in Kabul killed at least 13 U.S. service members and an uncertain number of Afghan civilians. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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Tell us about your military and chaplaincy experience in Afghanistan.

I went to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; I graduated in ‘99 and then I was commissioned a United States Marine. I served in the Marine Corps from '99 until 2005. I was deployed before 9/11 — I was on deployment in Australia when 9/11 happened.

So my unit, we were some of the first ones to go, we went into Pakistan when the air war started. We provided search and rescue for the pilots going in during the air war. And then we came out and went into Camp Rhino, southern Afghanistan, which was the first U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after the [Twin] Towers fell. 

We assisted the Northern Alliance in their push south. We were a blocking force, and then we eventually pushed up to Kandahar. And then we got swapped out and came back to the United States. 

And then I changed units and I went back for the beginning of the war in Iraq.

I came back and eventually got out of the military and went to seminary. I was ordained a priest in 2012.

I served three years in our diocese, in the cathedral. And then I went and served three more years as a Navy chaplain on a ship, the USS Wasp, mostly in operations off the coast of Libya.

I came back to the diocese — the bishop called me back, but then I went back [to the military] again.

I was an Air Force chaplain for three years. There was a need for chaplains, so I went active duty, and I was first in Florida, serving with Special Operations Command, and I deployed to Afghanistan last year. I was there from April until October of 2020. I was at Bagram Air Force Base. I came pretty close to being one of the last Catholic priest chaplains deployed there.

When I was there, I believe I was the only American Catholic priest in any service for most of the time I was in Afghanistan last year. I flew around a lot to have Mass.

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So in that chaplaincy assignment, you were responsible for a lot of territory in Afghanistan?

I was at Bagram, which was the largest Air Force base we had over there. So I had all the Catholic services. Anyone who was Catholic on that base, I was their priest. We had a lot of Americans, but we also had Catholic contractors from Africa and from other parts of the world.

So I had a lot of Masses. I had daily Mass, and then weekends I had six Masses on the weekend, just at Bagram alone. We had coronavirus going on over there too, so we couldn’t have a full chapel, so we tried to do multiple Masses as much as possible to allow everyone to go to Mass.

One of the Masses I had was on the other side of the base, where a lot of our contractors were. That Mass had been stopped before I arrived, but I was very glad when we could start it up again, because there were so many contractors from Uganda and, really, from a number of Catholic parts of the world, and they really desired the sacraments.

And it was kind of our mission, since it was our base. I wasn’t required to offer Mass for those contractors, but I felt a real responsibility to care for the needs of those people. There were a lot of people there who really desired the sacraments.

My piano player at that Mass was a Filipino contractor. He had been there nine years. When we started Masses on that side of the base again, word got out that a priest was there, and people showed up. The contractors who were there had really difficult living conditions, and weren’t always a priority.

Right now I worry about some of those contractors — whether they got out of the country or not.

The Army had small bases all over Afghanistan. And so the Army would fly me to those bases and so that was, really, it was great. One of the Blackhawk pilots would fly me around, and he would come to Mass on Saturday night. We were all over, hopping around, doing three or four Masses in a day or two days. There were some bases with a lot of soldiers from Catholic countries who really desired the sacraments. I would also go to the embassy, and would try to go wherever a base was that hadn’t had the sacraments or was in need of the sacraments.

It sounds like so much of your time was occupied with sacramental ministry. But you had the chaplaincy responsibilities of pastoral counseling or spiritual direction there too.

Sacramental ministry was a lot of my time. I had a lot of confessions and Masses. But I was responsible for my unit— the Air Force special operations unit in Bagram. So I did a lot of counseling for my unit. And as chaplains, we counsel anybody, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your faith is, it doesn’t matter if you’re a believer or an atheist. And so we do a lot of counseling — men who are homesick, or airmen for whom it is their first time deployed, and maybe a spouse back home is having difficulties or is pregnant back home. So I had a lot of counseling.

And then I had a role in our daily intel briefing — I had a thought of the day or a prayer that I would offer to the unit. In our unit we had a certain prayer — a non-denominational prayer — that chaplains would offer, and that carried on for a number of years of the unit deployment. 

And then a chaplain advises the unit commander about morale — obviously I can’t reveal confidences or things said in counseling, but I could reveal if people were struggling. We were in a combat mission, a combat role, and so people were experiencing death, with our allies and with foreign fighters. And people would come for guidance about how to make sense of that.

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US Army 10th Mountain Division soldiers guarding the tarmac at Kabul Airport. Crowds of people can be seen in the background. Credit: Sgt. Isaiah Campbell/U.S. Army.

As a Marine, yours were among the first boots on the ground in Afghanistan, and then you were one of the last American priests in the country to be there serving as a chaplain.

Now the world is watching the Taliban coming back into Kabul, and the chaos that is unfolding. What is that experience like for you?

I think that over the last 20 years, our goal was to rid the area of terrorism, and to give the people of Afghanistan a hope for the future. Whether terrorism will still reign there, I think it’s left to be determined, but it’s most likely that it will. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the August 26 terrorist attacks in Kabul, in which at least 13 U.S. service members were killed, as well as an as-yet-undetermined number of Afghan civilians.]

But even then, I don’t think we can say that we failed. I think that we did give the people of Afghanistan hope, even though maybe that hope right now might seem diminished, or it might seem that it’s not within their grasp, but we gave them an idea of what freedom is like. 

I think that we gave them a hope, and hopefully down the road that hope isn’t diminished. And hopefully one day, the Afghan people will be able to choose for themselves how they want to be governed.

But it is disheartening. It’s disheartening. I was talking with a buddy of mine who went to flight school with four Afghan pilots in America. And he was deathly worried because they were stuck in Kabul and couldn't get to the airport — them and their families. 

And again, I think, if the past holds true, the Taliban are not going to be kind to those that helped the Americans. So I think they have every right to be scared. And even if the Taliban say one thing, I think they have every right to be scared because of the past. 

So it’s hard to see those families, and contractors that worked on base with us. People who were committed to helping us and most of them, I think might not have done that because they really care that much about us, but because they needed the work. 

They needed the job. And so some of them might really innocently be pulled into being treated horribly just simply because they took a job that paid money that put food on their table. They needed the job and needed the money and it was a way to make a living. And so they’re scared now. 

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Many of our readers are pastors or serve in pastoral ministry. What kind of advice can you offer to them about the pastoral needs of their parishioners who served in Afghanistan or are military veterans?

I think letting [veterans] tell their story and then listening to them. You know, that guy who was talking to me about it yesterday —  he had gotten a few of the pilots to the airport, and their families, but there were a couple that weren't there and he didn't know if they'd be able to get there in the  next six days. 

And so I tried not to diminish the good that he's done. You know, he went above and beyond these last seven days to try to get those guys to the airport. And I think the same thing goes [for many veterans].

A lot of good things were done in Afghanistan —  we gave people hope, you know, and that hope doesn't die. And I think some people might say that we failed, or that the last 20 years were wasted. Or lives that were lost were wasted. But we don’t know what the future holds for Afghanistan.

For myself, in my own case, one of the last things that I did before I left was to baptize an Afghan interpreter. He was a Muslim and he wanted to become a Christian. And I went through kind of a speed course with him, because his life was in danger, going to an unsafe area where he was going to be an interpreter. And so with permission of Archbishop Broglio, I baptized, confirmed him, and gave him first Holy Communion. And I never saw him again.

But a priest who followed me on base went to the area where he was, and he came to Mass. And I can’t be in touch with him — he didn’t give me his phone number or anything, because he was fearful that he could be tracked through me. So I don’t know where he is now.

But what greater gift than to give someone the faith, and give someone Christ?

So I think the good that we did there — whether it was the faith, or the hope, or the education for those girls that were educated because we were there and that presence allowed for that. I don’t think we can diminish the good that we did. And we don’t know where Afghanistan will end up, but the hope’s not going to die. And those people, they’re going to remember, and they’re going to hold to that.

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Afghan civilians preparing to be airlifted from Kabul Airport, August 18, 2021. Credit: USMC Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Central Command Public Affairs.

The war in Afghanistan was a technologically advanced war. The technologies we have changes the way in which combatants experience the war — fighting the enemy is not always face-to-face in the ways it once was. Do those technological advancements mean that combat is less scarring or impactful?

I would say no. Maybe in a physical way, but the problem is that the more technology we have, the fewer people have running the technology, which makes it more stressful on them, because there’s not a lot of backup. So that can be very, very fatiguing.

And then, in our weapons systems that we have now, we can shoot from a long ways away. But I think the toll is on the mind and the toll is spiritual — which a lot of our veterans struggle with. We see the after effect [of long range weapons] because we have the cameras to do so. And when you have to fight someone face-to-face, and you see their humanity, it’s just different.

With our weapons systems, maybe it’s easier to pull the trigger, because it can almost begin to feel like a game, but lives are at stake. And I think that when people realize that, it has more of a mental impact. We have drones that are operated in America that are all around the world. So you’re operating a drone, maybe firing a weapon, and then go home and have dinner with your children. And so they’re not in the combat environment, to help one another or talk about the things they’re going through, because you’re so far away. And so I think in many ways it has caused our veterans  or active members to really suffer mentally or spiritually. 

Here in the U.S., we know that veterans will come home with real challenges — to mental health, spiritually, and in other ways too. What can the Church do — what can Catholics do — for veterans of the war in Afghanistan?

That was brought up yesterday in a leadership meeting here in the diocese. And we are looking at whether some funds in the diocese can help to pay for counseling that veterans need. And our prayers for our veterans and military members are needed, especially in a culture we have today, in which it is harder and harder for people of faith to serve.

And I think that supporting — as churches, and as communities — supporting the VFW and the American Legion, and the different things they do. They do tons of different memorial services and other things. And oftentimes when you go there, the only people there are older Vietnam vets, but encouraging young veterans to be a part of those groups can be helpful. Because the things they do are helpful.

It may be 50 years apart, and it might be worlds apart, but the stories are the same. I’m sure a Vietnam vet who left Vietnam, where some of the people who helped us were left behind, would very much connect to the Afghan vets because they understand. They had the same feeling.

What would you say, Father, to younger priests who are considering service as military chaplains? Is it worth it?

If you ever have a desire to be a missionary priest, there's no greater place than the Archdiocese of the Military Services. I mean, you are working with people from all different aspects of life. People that have never been introduced to faith at all, you know, or don't even know who God is. And I think we have an opportunity there to really go to missionary territory and really evangelize and bring the message of Christ and his love to those that have maybe never felt it, or who have family lives that are just torn apart, you know, [people who] never knew a father or a mother.  

There is an opportunity there to love them. And as priests, really to show Christ’s love. 

It gets harder and harder because of the way the world is changing. It gets harder and harder as a chaplain to be very limited in some aspects of his duties to be able to pray or really express the faith.

But I don’t know how many people I confirmed or brought into the faith in my time as a Navy and Air Force chaplain — it was a lot. The number of people who are just so hungry for the faith, and they seek it out. And if we’re not in the game, they’re gonna miss the greatest opportunity, which is to join the Catholic Church. There are people right there who are hungry, and we have the opportunity to really bring them the fulfillment they desire in the Church.

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American, British, and Turkish soldiers assisting a child evacuating from Kabul Airport, August 20, 2021. Credit: USMC Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/United States Marine Corps.

Now you work in a chancery, and so you know the difficulty of staffing parishes and other diocesan ministries — it can be hard to approve a young priest to leave the diocese for military service. It impacts the whole diocese. What do you say to diocesan bishops about allowing or encouraging priests to serve in the military?

Archbishop Broglio always says that each of the men and women who serve our country comes from a diocese, and it’s not his — it’s not the AMS. And those service members keep their home of record during their military service, wherever they’re from.

And so they are our responsibility. And I think that our military men and women sacrifice so much, we owe them the sacraments, especially when they’re going across the line of departure.

I remember the priest who served our unit when we were going into Iraq. The days before we went into Iraq from Kuwait, we had Mass every day, and hundreds of people were at Mass and in line for confession, because we had no idea what we were going into. And I can’t imagine not having him there with me before going into combat, where we didn’t know what was going to happen. 

These are our young men and women from our diocese who are serving in other places, but we are responsible. So I think we owe it to our men and women to be there as priests, as the Church, while they sacrifice to serve our country.