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Support of troops in Iraq hasn’t waned since day one


Military personnel in Iraq watch from afar as the debate grows over continued funding for the war and politicians questions one another’s support for the troops, but there’s no doubt in the minds of troops on the ground about the support provided by an organization whose actions speak louder than the words tossed around by politicians.

The Army & Air Force Exchange arrived in Iraq on April 7, 2003, and it’s been there performing its support function ever since. The only thing that’s changed is the scope of operations.

Initially, AAFES operations in Iraq began with Craig Sewell and Dennis Hatcher selling energy drinks, protein bars and baby wipes out of a Toyota Landcruiser the duo commandeered to follow troops patrolling an abandoned airfield south of Baghdad.

“The environment was very austere,” said Sewell, an AAFES vp to the Strategic Partnership Directorate. “While there wasn’t running water or power, and we had limited shelter, we understood that we were there to provide service regardless of the conditions. With the battle for Baghdad still in full swing, and enemies launching multiple attacks on the airfield during the evening sandstorms, this was one of the most challenging missions I have supported in my nearly 30 years of service with the exchange.”

Today, more than four years later, AAFES and its 390 civilian employees who served voluntarily in Iraq operate a supply chain that keeps product flowing to 26 facilities, 24 smaller exchange operations run by individual military units and 63 name-brand quick-serve restaurants as well as hundreds of services such as laundry and barber shops.

Although AAFES started with nothing in Iraq, the organization’s mission of “We go where you go” has guided its growth and service to the troops. What the future holds for operations in Iraq remains to be seen, but closer to home lessons learned in Iraq stand to benefit troops and civilians. AAFES has developed a fleet of state-of-the-art mobile retail facilities complete with satellite communications, coolers and built-in shelving.

Known as “tactical field exchanges,” the units can be deployed in response to domestic emergencies within 48 hours, as they were following Hurricane Katrina and more recently to support firefighters in Washington state last summer. Armed with the information that can only be learned under such extreme conditions, AAFES redesigned the tactical field exchanges to better withstand the rigors of harsh conditions and serve the needs of troops and emergency responders.

“They have everything necessary to be a ‘turnkey’ operation,” said Lt. Col. Steven Dean, AAFES chief of contingency operations.

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