The Army and Air Force Exchange Service, better known as AAFES, has a simple motto with a pledge to its service member customers: "We go where you go." With U.S. troops, including hundreds of Soldiers with the 1st Infantry Division's Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, back in Iraq after years of no military presence in that country, the motto is being put to the test.
With the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces at the end of 2011, AAFES store locations in Iraq were closed. The first wave of troops back into the country to advise Iraqi Security Forces in the effort against the Islamic State have largely had to go without the unique flavor of home that an AAFES store or trailer can provide, but efforts by the exchange service and U.S. service members is changing that.
"Within the month (of March), the (Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command-Iraq) will have an AAFES imprest store at every major location where U.S. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are located in Iraq," said Maj. Jon Hermesch, deputy personnel officer with the 1st Inf. Div.
An imprest system means that while AAFES will provide the merchandise, military members will be responsible for running the store and managing inventory.
There are now four stores up and running in Iraq -- one each at the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center, Union III, Camp Taji and in northern Iraq at Erbil. One more scheduled to open this month is at the Besmaya Range Complex near Baghdad.
"We are in discussion with AAFES in order to turn over the stores in Erbil and eventually Union III to AAFES to run as a fully functioning retail store," Hermesch said.
Camp Taji, which had a major U.S. military presence and a large AAFES store until 2011, now houses a contingent of American trainers with the 82nd Airborne Division, who are training Iraqi Security forces in infantry tactics, logistics and medical support, among other things.
"It has been a great experience, bring morale to the troops, work with the different units," said Sgt. Alana Abraham, a postal noncommissioned officer with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Special Troops Battalion, 1st Sustainment Brigade, 1st Inf. Div., and an Austin, Texas, native who runs the imprest store at Camp Taji. "It's always nice to know that you assisted in making this deployment a little bit better for them."
Spc. Robert Johnson II volunteered to extend his deployment with 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Inf. Div., to help division headquarters maintain a new AAFES site at Union III in Baghdad.
"It's exciting," he said. "When you see Soldiers pointing and getting excited when they see our stuff, it's nothing but joy."
Abraham, Johnson and their fellow Soldier-clerks underwent a short training course in receiving shipments, accounting for inventory and using the Eagle Cash Card system. In the event of an emergency, Abraham said, professional help is near at hand.
"The solutions to the minor glitches that we may have are a simple email away to the AAFES representative at Camp Buehring or the AAFES lead representative at Camp Arifjan," she said.
Though service members at these locations have access to dining facilities and care packages from home, being able to count on access to some of the comforts of home through an AAFES store is one of the things that sets the U.S. military apart, said Lt. Col. Gregory Johnson, chief personnel officer for the 1st Inf. Div.
"It's about bringing a little bit of American comfort to service members wherever they are -- junk food, soda, toiletries -- all bring a little comfort," Johnson said. "I think this is an example of why the U.S. Army and military in general is special -- we care about our troops, their morale and resiliency, and we are willing to put manpower and logistical effort at getting them some creature comforts."