EagleHerald Staff Writer
PESHTIGO—Matt Evancheck was attending an accounts payable course in a hotel on College Avenue, Appleton on Sept. 11, 2001.
His class took a morning break. He stood and walked out the door into the hallway. The hallway was lined with TVs projecting a repeating image of the World Trade Center’s north tower on fire.
“What in the heck is happening there?” Evancheck said he thought.
He watched as a plane hit the south tower. Then break was over. He went back into class and continued the accounting course, but after some time, the instructor realized something had gone terribly wrong and let everyone out early.
“I’ll never forget it,” Evancheck said. “The attacks are part of what inspired me to reenlist.”
Evancheck, who is currently a millwright at the Dunn Paper in Menominee, served 20 years in the U.S. Military as a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve, the latter part of which he spent in the Middle East following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
He retired from military service last December and was finally able to have a post-quarantine celebration with family, friends and military colleagues this past August shortly after the U.S. began pulling out of Afghanistan.
Evancheck deployed to the Camp Virginia Ammunition Holding Area (AHA) in Kuwait June 6, 2007 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was an ammunition specialist and member of the 395th Ordnance Company, a unit that receives, stores, inspects and ships munitions.
He also traveled to Iraq from Kuwait a few times to assist Explosive Ordnance Detection personnel. He recalled his first time traveling over the border on a haji bus. When the bus neared the border, the passengers were told to load their weapons:
“We are entering an active war zone,” a voice announced over the speaker. “There are people here who don’t want you to be here. Stay alert and stay alive.”
“I had my two young kids back at home,” Evancheck said. “At that moment, I thought for the first time, ‘am I going to leave them without a dad?’”
Evancheck’s AHA flooded with munitions from Iraq in 2010 when Operation Iraqi Freedom transitioned to Operation New Dawn, beginning the drawdown leading up to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq under former President Barack Obama.
Evancheck said that his AHA received over 70 aircraft pallets of munitions during this transition, or enough to destroy the facility and its two-mile-wide perimeter if the munitions were to detonate.
After ending his tour in Kuwait, Evancheck deployed to Afghanistan July 4, 2011 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
He left Fort Hood, Texas and flew to Manas, Uzbekistan, where he stayed with his unit for two weeks to acclimatize before traveling to the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
Evancheck said the airfield opened weekly for locals to enter and set up a bazaar.
“There was this little kid,” Evancheck said, “he’s like, ‘I’ve got t-shirts, good price!’ and I’m like ‘how much?’ and he’s like ‘twenty dollars!’ and I’m like ‘no way, are you kidding me? I’m not gonna buy that!’ and he’s like ‘twenty dollars, cheaper than Walmart!’”
The Bagram Airfield also had a prison, and there was a prison library that held materials collected over the years, including a box full of Korans with messages that military officials believed were used to facilitate communication between prisoners. The Korans were confiscated and stored in the library, and in February 2012, those books made their way to the airfield’s refuse burn pits.
Some locals discovered the burned Korans and began protesting, waving the blackened pages of their holy book in the air.
“Here we are, these Americans burning their most sacred text,” Evancheck said. “These people lost their minds.”
The base shut down as protesters started attacking the compound.
“People felt pretty sorry for us,” Evancheck said. “We didn’t have any water supply coming in, so I had to take showers in the mornings with a bottle of water.”
Evancheck said the rocketfire increased during the protests, often hitting the airfield five to six times a day. The approaching rockets were announced over an intercom:
INCOMING, INCOMING, INCOMING...INCOMING, INCOMING, INCOMING.
A whining siren followed the announcement.
“We’d put on our body armor and helmet and head down to the bunker,” Evancheck said. “I got used to it after a while. You’d see these new units coming in, they’d be scrambling all over the place when there was a rocket coming in. But they were so frequent, I got to the point where I actually slept through an alarm once.”
Just as Evancheck’s military career is now in the past, the U.S. war in the Middle East, the longest war in American history, has come to a close, bounded by the destruction of Sept. 11, 2001 and the departure of the final evacuation flight from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan Aug. 30, 2021.
“I don’t know what people high up in the administration know, so I can’t really say if it was a good or bad decision,” he said. “But it’s weird to see everything being left behind. There were some big structures built in these places, and we just walked away from it, we just let it go.”
Evancheck’s daughter made him a poster for his retirement party. It’s a black piece of construction paper with about a dozen photos from his time in service. He pointed to a photo of himself holding a nonalcoholic Budweiser at the AHA in Kuwait.
“Here I am, celebrating my 34th birthday,” he said. “We couldn’t drink alcohol at all. No parties, no fun for us.”
In the middle of the poster was a photo of the desert in the northern region of Kuwait, about 20 minutes from the border with Iraq. A desolate expanse of pale sand meeting a desolate expanse of blue sky.
“I’d tell people, ‘there’s beach everywhere here,’” he said, lifting his hands and gesturing about him. “Eventually, you’ll reach the ocean.”