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A soldier's journey: Cottage Grove officer, veteran shares story in new cable documentary

Patrick Nickle of Cottage Grove served in Afghanistan in 2009 with the Army Reserve. Nickle's year-long deployment is the subject of "A Soldier's Journey" by Justin Atkinson, a government producer at the South Washington County Telecommunications Commission. Submitted photo courtesy of Patrick Nickle

Army veteran Patrick Nickle didn’t have a story to tell. He had dozens.

For documentary maker Justin Atkinson, it was a matter of finding the right one. Nickle, a Cottage Grove police sergeant, earned a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan in 2009 and also served a second deployment to Qatar in 2016.

“I was trying to find the story,” Atkinson said. “When he started talking about his first deployment to Afghanistan he got very emotional. I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s the story I want to tell.’”

Nickle is one of three local veterans who are featured in “A Salute to Veterans” on local cable channel SWC-TV, where Atkinson works. The series premiered Nov. 6 on Channel 18 will run throughout November.

Nickle shares his experiences in a segment titled “A Soldier’s Journey.”

“It was an honor that he was willing to talk about his experiences so openly,” Atkinson said.

Nickle deployed to Afghanistan as a captain in the Army Reserve. He was stationed at Bagram Air Base, which was then the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan. Among its vast complex of airfields, barracks and support buildings was a new prison, built to replace the controversial Bagram Theater Internment Facility. The new prison housed suspected Taliban militants and other insurgents.

Nickle was in charge of the day-to-day operations of Charlie Unit, where some of the most dangerous offenders were kept. He had 142 soldiers under his command.

It was a grim, dangerous work, a combination of tedium and terror. Inmates would throw their feces at the guards. The daily weather forecast always included a chance of mortars, which were launched intermittently by militants in the mountains outside the base. You felt vulnerable, particularly when you bedded down in your tent for the night.

“It got to the point where people think, ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’ or you just become numb to it,” Nickle said.

Then came the day a mortar round landed in the base, close enough for Nickle to feel the impact. He began to have real doubts about whether he’d make it back.

“That one really kind of hit home,” he said. “That’s when I started writing letters to each member of my family. They’re still sealed. One is to both my boys. One is to my ex, my brother, sister, each parent and step-parent.”

Nickle, who retired from the military last year, followed his father and older brother into the military. His father Paul is a Vietnam War veteran.

“I saw how proud my father was when my brother joined active duty,” he said.

Nickle served with the Minnesota National Guard and on active duty in the Marine Corps. But he wanted to earn his deployment patch, that distinctive insignia that would show he had served in a combat zone.

He got his wish, Atkinson said. But it came at a cost. During the documentary, he told Atkinson that he still has trouble sleeping.

“He was excited to get his deployment patch,” Atkinson said. “Over the course of that deployment, he started to question whether or not it was worth it. If he died over there, his kids wouldn’t have a father anymore. Just confronting mortality and what’s ultimately really important in life is something I found really compelling about his story.”

“A Salute to Veterans” also feature segments on Michael Wimmer of Woodbury, who served in Vietnam with the Marines and earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. The third segment, “The Service of Dave Conrad,” is a tribute to the late commander of American Legion Post 98 in St. Paul Park. Conrad served two tours of duty in Vietnam with the Marines. He died Sept. 21, 2016.

“A Soldier’s Journey” has been nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Atkinson is nominated along with Brian Schmidt, director of photography; Mark Martinez, executive producer; and Ann Simpson, aerial videographer.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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