WASHINGTON -- 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.
Today, there are at least 30 post exchanges/base exchanges in Iraq and 52 throughout Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, said Judd Anstey, public affairs specialist for AAFES. In addition to these stores, AAFES supports troops in isolated and hostile areas, with some 80 unit-run Imprest Fund stores and mobile operations called "PX Rodeos."
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.