AAFES Brings 'Little Bit of Home' to Deployed Troops
By K.L. Vantran
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 14, 2004 For troops patrolling the dusty and often dangerous roads in Iraq, anything from home is a welcome sight. Since setting up a mobile store at Tallil Air Base, near the town of Nasiryah, in April, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service continues to provide "a little bit of home" to deployed troops.
Troops visit Burger King at Baghdad International Airport. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service operates three Burger Kings and two Pizza Huts in Iraq. The Baghdad facility is one of the top 10 Burger Kings in the world. Photo courtesy of AAFES.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
AAFES recently broke ground for new stores in Mosul and Kirkuk. The stores carry assortments of snacks, beverages, tobacco and personal hygiene products, as well as the latest in electronics, DVDs, CDs and souvenirs, he added. AAFES also has answered the troops' craving for fast food. Three Burger Kings and two Pizza Huts operate in Iraq, and as soon as AAFES gets a "green light" it will provide more Whoppers and Personal Pan Pizzas, said Anstey.
The Burger King at Baghdad International Airport, which operates out of a trailer, has become one of the top 10 Burger King restaurants in the world, he said.
"Providing support to our troops deployed in OEF/OIF is the most important job we'll ever do," said Army Maj. Gen. Kathryn Frost, AAFES commander. "We're determined to do whatever is necessary to bring a little bit of home to those troops willing to fight for us. Whether it's beverages and snacks or the latest music and video, we'll move heaven and earth to get U.S. merchandise to our troops wherever they are."
While it's been a real challenge in the last several years as U.S. forces have been sent to remote and hostile regions, the general said, AAFES is proud it can continue its pledge to them: "We go where you go."
"The connection to home that a PX or BX can provide at what seems like the end of the earth is the quality of life troops deserve and that AAFES will deliver," said Frost.
More than 240 AAFES employees all volunteers - work in Iraq. Another 163 are in Kuwait.
"The associates who deploy to these contingency operations put their lives on hold, leave family, comfort, and safety behind just to take care of troops," said Frost. "That's a level of commitment that is hard to find, and they do it because they truly believe they are serving the best customers in the world."
Craig Sewell, vice president for services at AAFES headquarters in Dallas, spent nearly a year in the war-torn countries of Afghanistan and Iraq, helping to set up exchanges and food concessions. In April, while fighting was still going on in Baghdad, he flew into Tallil Air Base on a C-130 to determine the best place for the PX.
He said those who went on the reconnaissance mission brought whatever AAFES merchandise they could carry in backpacks. The group also brought footlockers full of sundry items.
"Whatever we could drag in, we did," he said. "The troops were elated. They hadn't seen any of the items we brought, such as sports drinks, in a long time."
Sewell described the conditions in Iraq as "austere and hostile." He said there was limited infrastructure, buildings were run down with broken windows, and there was no running water. Establishing exchange facilities presented many challenges, he added. The 26-year AAFES veteran said the infrastructure has improved since those first days. but that running water still is a big challenge.
AAFES employees follow security guidelines and adhere to safety precautions such as traveling in convoys, said Sewell. They travel by military air and have helicopter support.
"We're embedded with the military," he said. "We're in the same camps that have incoming mortars. We sleep, eat and bathe in the same facilities."
Melanie White, a sales area manager at the Tinker Air Force Base Exchange in Oklahoma City, Okla., who spent May through November in Bagram, Afghanistan, agreed. "Living conditions were pretty basic," she said. "We lived in tents, used porta-potties and most of the time had no air conditioning. We lived just like the soldiers."
White said there was dust and dirt everywhere. "You could never really stay clean," she added.
In addition to dealing with the environment, the manager said there were many challenges in running the exchange. This included registers breaking down, a lack of computer and phone service, and communication difficulties with local hires.
On top of that was the constant danger of rocket-propelled grenades. White said she heard sirens daily and took part in alert drills, donning a flak vest and Kevlar equipment inside the bunkers.
Even when the troops didn't say anything, White said she knows they appreciated the presence of AAFES. "You could see it in their eyes, especially the soldiers who only got to come in once a month from the mountains where they were hunting the Taliban."
Of course, she said, there were others who voiced their thanks. "They just couldn't believe we'd have their favorite brand of chip, tobacco or CD," she said. And there were those who were "just glad to see a smiling face," she added.
Despite the hardships and danger, Sewell and White said they'd go back.
"I never appreciated our troops as much as I do now," said White, "after having seen with my own eyes their living conditions in these places and how much something as simple as a soda or chocolate things we never truly appreciate until we have to go without really means to them and helps them get through another day.
"We have wonderful soldiers and I thank God for them every day," she added.
Anyone wishing to help deployed troops with store purchases may participate in the AAFES "Gifts from the Homefront" Program.
Since the gift certificates, in $10, $20, $25 or $50 denominations, can be used for merchandise already stocked at AAFES locations in OIF/OEF, Anstey said the program is a safe alternative to traditional care packages that place unnecessary strain on the military mail system.
Participants may designate a specific service member to receive the gift certificate, or the certificate will be distributed to "any service member" through organizations such as the Red Cross, Air Force Aid Society or Fisher House.
The exchange also follows troops to Qatar to provide PX support during short rest and recuperation periods, said Anstey. AAFES has also set up shop at Rhein-Main Airport in Germany to greet the troops heading home for extended R&R.
Army and Air Force Exchange Service