WIESBADEN, GERMANY - "It was an experience you don't forget," said Ernest Ingram about volunteering to deploy to Iraq to open a Post Exchange there for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.

Ingram, who was with servicemembers as they entered the country in March 2003, said forget what you see on television about war because "when you see the real deal, it boggles the mind; you see the fear in a person's eyes."

The Department of Defense has established a special medal to recognize the contributions and accomplishments of DOD civilians such as Ingram who volunteer to go to deployed environments to serve uniformed men and women.

Eighteen associates received the Global War on Terror Civilian Service Medals during a special ceremony at the Hainerberg Post Exchange Jan. 8.

The Department of Defense created this medal "to recognize our volunteers who support our troops in combat," said Col. Chuck Salvo, AAFES-Europe and Southwest Asia Region commander. "The military gets the same award."

The eligibility criteria for the medal mirrors as closely as possible the GWOT Expeditionary Medal awarded to military members. It is awarded to civilian Department of Defense employees "who on or after Sept. 11, 2001, to a date to be determined, participate abroad in direct support of a U.S. military GWOT operation in a location designated as a combat zone."

"AAFES was created to support deployed troops," said Salvo. These are civilians who are in combat areas with trained Soldiers and they are being fired on, too. There are many associates who have had to dive for cover when their location came under fire. Some have been injured and even killed.

But still, "AAFES meets its mission every single rotation" for associates volunteering to deploy, said Salvo.

It means a lot to the troops to have an AAFES facility at the deployed location. "It's a little bit of home," said Salvo. "My driver used to volunteer to go on patrol so he could go to Burger King."

Ingram, who volunteered to go to Iraq to open a store at Tallil, recalled that shortly after his AAFES colleagues Rich Pickering, Marie Cliff and he arrived in Iraq word got out that AAFES was there.

Soldiers started coming to their location before AAFES could even get set up, so they immediately began unloading pallets of merchandise and selling it right on the spot.

Ingram and the others set up their cash registers on a couple of tables, put camouflage netting up for protection and got to work. They ended up staying in Iraq for a year.

Ingram said when they went into Iraq they saw stripped down vehicles on the side of the road and raging fires. "We could see the oil fields burning. You could hear the (gunfire) pop or that whiz and you would scramble. Many nights we closed the store early because we were being hit," said Ingram. "The next morning we opened the doors on time."

Ingram said in addition to managing the store he developed a personal connection with the military members he was there to serve. "I spent 20-30 percent of the day chatting with the Soldiers," he said. "We had a Marine unit that had fought their way in and they fought their way out; we saw the bandages on them. While they were in the exchange you could see them smiling and that it was a bit of home. When it was time for them to go, their faces changed."

Hundreds of AAFES associates volunteer to deploy throughout the year to places ranging from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, to Iraq to run and maintain all the different AAFES operations ranging from exchanges and services to food facilities.

AAFES has supported troops for more than 200 years, and Salvo said a certain level of support is now expected in deployed locations. Deployed Soldiers, Marines and Airmen have come to expect that AAFES will be there for them to bring that little slice of home.

At the onset of the Global War on Terror AAFES sent associates to open exchanges as quickly as possible in far-flung locations. Salvo said now the focus is on "centralizing in Iraq and expanding in Afghanistan."

And that means associates will continue to volunteer to put themselves in dangerous situations so that AAFES' promise to "Serve Where You Serve" can be fulfilled.

As for Ingram, would he go again' "Yes. That's where our job is."

These individuals also received the medal: Michael Deerhake, Alrun Dillard, Brian Muse, Christine Shelton, David Scriven, Ed Mattice Bryan, Gisela Schroll-Atterberry, Jo Gates, Johnny Ruffin, Katina Finley, Richard Sanchez, Robert Wagenius, Ronald Jackson, Douglas Ballard, John Smith.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16