CINCU, ROMANIA -- Supporting the U.S. Army Europe-led, multinational exercise Saber Guardian 17, Pfc. Nathan Harberson is a long way from his home in Denton, Texas. While serving in a remote village in Romania, Harberson and service members feel closer to familiar comforts as the Army & Air Force Exchange Service goes where they go to deliver a needed taste of home.
A couple times a week, Harberson picks up his favorite Texas beverage--sweet tea--at the Exchange's mobile field exchange (MFE) in Cincu. Up to 100 troops join him during his regular visits to the Exchange's 53-foot long trailer packed with sports drinks, microwaveable meals, beef jerky, tuna and snacks as well as necessities such as socks, underwear, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste and other hygiene items.
"The Exchange really helps us out," said the 20-year-old Harberson. "I get my sweet tea and energy drinks here."
The Exchange supports Harberson and the Soldiers he serves with from Fort Carson's Charlie Battery, 3rd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery Regiment, along with some 14,000 troops participating in the training exercise in the Black Sea region, with MFEs at Cincu and Papa Air Base, Hungary; as well as semi-permanent stores at MK Air Base, Romania, and Novo Selo Training Area, Bulgaria.
"It's a nice little taste of home," said Sgt. Mark Mandery, who was buying energy drinks and crackers. "It gets us away from the hustle and bustle of the unit and gives us a little break."
For Exchange Director/CEO Tom Shull, supporting service members far from home helps the Department of Defense's oldest and largest retailer deliver on its promise to provide a taste of home wherever America's military mission goes.
"Austere, remote locations like Romania are where Exchange support is needed most," Shull said. "It's a privilege to be a lifeline to America for our Warfighters."
Before Saber Guardian began, the MFE was driven to Cincu along with eight trailers of merchandise from the Exchange's Germersheim Distribution Center in Germany. The MFE and trailers housing merchandise are parked just across the dirt road from the Soldiers' tents, near the entrance to the camp nestled among hills and valleys. Rain has drenched the area this summer, and a small makeshift bridge of plywood guides Soldiers across the mud to their Exchange.
Sgt. 1st Class Robert Wilson from the 742nd Support Maintenance Company, South Carolina National Guard, says the MFE lifts his spirits.
"It's a lifesaver," said Wilson, who's served for 28 years. "There's no other store--no other means. We need it badly."
Just 72 hours after the MFE and merchandise arrived, seven Exchange associates set up and stocked shelves, installed cash registers to accept credit and debit cards and hooked the trailer up to a diesel generator for electricity and air-conditioning--and opened the doors to the store. The first day, more than 500 Soldiers came through to stock up on necessities. Since then, between 800 to 1,000 shoppers enter the store each day.
U.S. Army Europe Commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who attended a military training demonstration at Cincu on July 15, acknowledged the importance of the Exchange's support.
"I love the AAFES motto of 'we go where you go,'" Hodges said. "A Soldier is often looking for a soda…or shaving cream. Things actually as simple as that kind of help take the edge off for the men and women who have been out here a very long time. It's just a tradition of you all always being there somehow, and it kind of gives you something to look forward to. Thanks very much for that."
While MFEs have been an Exchange tradition, this is the first deployment for the trailer at Cincu. This sturdier, more sophisticated MFE is made from a shipping container encased in steel; older models were smaller and less durable, made of plywood and aluminum. The Exchange associates who run the store live like the troops do--sleeping in tents and eating MREs.
"The Soldiers are my family, our family," said Camelia Ireland, the MFE manager who deployed from U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden's Exchange. "We want to be here for them when they need us."