Three veterans answer the same question: What was it like being in Afghanistan?

Katelyn Waltemyer
Jackson Newspapers
Members of the 82nd Airborne Division run through a cloud of smoke during a training exercise at Fort Bragg Sept. 19, 2001, as the 82nd continues normal training while they wait for word on a possible deployment.

More than 800,000 American troops were deployed to Afghanistan during the 20-year war. As of Aug. 30, all of the remaining troops left. 

In the wake of America's exit from Afghanistan and the 20-year anniversary of Sept. 11, three veterans in or from Jackson County reflected on their time overseas. 

Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan

Two tours. Seven months. Derik Board, a Ripley native and an Air National Guard veteran was deployed to the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan twice in 2010 and 2012. 

Derik Board enlisted for the military the same day as his father.

When his boots hit the ground, he was surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges. He was looking at the Hindu Kush mountain chain. The sunsets and sunrises were unlike anything he's ever seen. 

As he looked at the horizon he realized there was a dichotomy. The scenery was enchanting, but the war was horrendous. 

It got to a point where he didn’t even flinch when a mortar hit his base. 

Every day after he finished his 14-hour shift working as a plane mechanic, he’d hit the gym. One day he was running on the treadmill.

There was a boom. The gym door blew open. A wave of dust poured into the gym. 

A mortar hit just outside the building, ripping the door off its hinges. He looked to his left, then to his right – everyone was OK. Everyone went back to their workouts without a word. Board never stopped running.

It took a while for Board to get to this point, though. The first time he experienced a mortar hit he was in his bunk video chatting with his then-girlfriend. He paid $60 a month for the internet. 

It was in the afternoon. He had just gotten off work. He headed back to his hut, which was a shack made out of plywood, and he called her. The mortar struck the entry control point the very one he walked in and out of for work every day. 

That was the first time it hit him: there were people who didn't want him there. 

He shot out of his bunk, closed the laptop, put on his battle rattle and was headed out to help.

"I'm not trained for any of this stuff," Board said. "I just did what I was told." 

Once he saw the calm faces of other soldiers he turned around. If they weren't freaking out, he wasn't going to. 

Everyone was OK. Shrapnel pierced through the tails of aircraft, and Board had to use a different entry point to go to work. 

During both deployments there would be at least one funeral ceremony a week. Board never carried a casket, but he always prepared the plane so it was ready for the funeral. 

As he stood and saluted the dead soldier, he realized they didn't always carry a casket. 

"It was also insane that sometimes, there wasn't enough left of the person to warrant a casket," Board said. "They would just bring like a box, and inside that box would be whatever they could find of that person to be able to bring them home."

He wasn't able to talk about the funerals long. 

Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan

One tour. Six months. Andrew Chancey, a Ripley native and a Marine Corps veteran volunteered to go to Afghanistan in 2011. 

Going to Afghanistan is like getting a badge of honor, Chancey said. 

When Chancey got off the airplane he said it felt like he never left the base. The heat was relentless, but it brought him comfort. It reminded him of where he was stationed prior Yuma, Arizona. 

"The good thing about the human is that we adapt," Chancey said. "You kind of know what's expected of you and you adapt."

That's exactly what he did. 

Before arriving at Camp Leatherneck, Chancey spent a few days in Kandahar. He heard sirens at least once a day  that meant there was a mortar attack. He never felt the impact of them, but he heard the siren and had to find cover at least once a day. 

It was a 30-minute flight to Camp Leatherneck from Kandahar. He arrived in the middle of the night. The heat was intense. Beads of sweat formed on his face. 

Chancey was trained for combat, but he never experienced it in Afghanistan. He would work up to 16 hours a day on aircraft, go to the gym, sleep and repeat. 

One day a mortar hit his compound near where he was working. It was a dud, thankfully. Chancey said if it wasn't a dud he probably would have been fine because he was inside, but at least one of his friends would have been killed. 

There were countless ceremonial transfers at Camp Leatherneck. Chancey volunteered at all of them during his six-month stint. It was the most challenging thing he did overseas. 

It didn't matter if Chancey didn't know the person in the casket. Every time he saw an American flag-draped casket, his mind raced. That could have been him. 

"When you're over there, and you're actually seeing the flag or the casket and you're experiencing it, even though you don't know the person, people in the formation do, and like they are feeling a certain way, and you feel with them because you wear the same uniform they do," Chancey said. 

That was one of the "redeeming" qualities of his deployment, the friendships he made. Chancey called it "embracing the suck." They always tried to make the best of every day. 

Eventually, Chancey got his Humvee license. He'd drive from one end of the base to another delivering equipment about once a week. He'd always stop at the exchange, which was a market on the base and buy a can of Coke.

Andrew Chancey bought a Coke from a market once a week while he was stationed at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan.

It was a taste of home. 

Camp Eggers, Afghanistan

Mike Wray's deployment fell three days short of a year. Originally from Texas, Wray moved to Ripley and joined the Army in 2009, and was deployed in July 2010. 

He was a truck driver who transported personnel. It was one of the deadliest jobs at the time, he said, but he didn't realize that until after he signed up. 

Mike Wray smiles in front of one of the trucks he drove while he was stationed in Afghanistan.

While in Kabul, Wray formed prejudices. 

He worked with interpreters. At one point, his group was attacked every time they traveled. He would drive trucks anywhere from four to 22 hours away from camp. It didn't take long for Wray to realize his group was hit every time he travelled without that interpreter and never when he was with them. 

He said the interpreter was detained and after that, he had a hard time trusting anyone not wearing the same uniform as him. 

"It takes away all capabilities to look at people as an individual versus trying to generalize them," Wray said. 

It's been an ongoing process for Wray to forgive and let go of generalizations. But Wray would go back tomorrow to serve in Afghanistan if he could. 

"There are people over there that, you know, were worth fighting for," He said. "It was worth every bit of it because they were worth every bit of it."  

All of the veterans shared their thoughts on how the U.S. left. They didn't like what they saw. 

Board threw his hands up in the air as he watched U.S. troops leave Afghanistan on TV a few weeks ago. 

"I'm still processing it," Board said. 

Chancey said it reminded him of the last season of Game of Thrones rushed.

Wray had one thing to say. 

"It was too much, too soon."

— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at kwaltemyer@jacksonnewspapers.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.