DALLAS (Army News Service, April 4, 2007) - The Army and Air Force Exchange Service marks four years of support to servicemembers in Iraq this week.

Armed with little more than backpacks and footlockers full of energy drinks, protein bars and baby wipes flown into Iraq aboard a C-130 flying 300 feet off the ground, Craig Sewell and Dennis Hatcher launched Army and Air Force Exchange Service "combat retail" operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom on April 7, 2003.

On that day, AAFES' first mobile exchange in Iraq was actually an old Toyota Landcruiser Sewell and Hatcher commandeered to follow troops patrolling what was previously an Iraqi airfield south of Baghdad.

"The environment was very austere," said Sewell, AAFES' Vice President assigned 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."

Four years later, the footlockers, backpacks and even the Landcruiser have been scrapped in favor of a sophisticated supply chain that leverages air, ground and sea assets to deliver the exchange benefit to Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines throughout the Operation Iraqi Freedom theater.

This logistics pipeline ensures 26 post exchange facilities, 24 unit-run exchange operations, 63 name-brand fast food restaurants and hundreds of services, including barber, beauty and laundry, have the goods needed to deliver a slice of Americana to troops called to serve far from home.

"AAFES started with absolutely nothing in Iraq," said AAFES' Chief of Contingency Operations Lt. Col. Steven Dean. "While name-brand fast food was just a distant hope on that April day in 2003, troops deploying today have convenient access not only to BX/PXs, but also dozens of recognizable restaurant brands including Burger King, Taco Bell and Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits."

Making sure the food is hot and exchange shelves are stocked is a force of more than 390 American civilians voluntarily deployed to operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom at any given time. These AAFES associates, many of whom have deployed multiple times, live and work alongside the troops they serve during 6- to 12-month deployments.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, 1,890 AAFES employees have voluntarily left the comforts of their homes and families to extend the exchange benefit to troops craving a well-deserved taste of home.
AAFES is also prepared to support natural disaster and contingencies closer to home with a fleet of state-of-the-art mobile retail facilities that come complete with satellite communications, coolers and built-in shelving.

Called Tactical Field Exchange, or TFEs, these units are often the first resources to be deployed to domestic emergencies. Staged at various locations throughout the United States, including AAFES' sprawling Distribution Center in Waco, Texas, the TFEs have been redesigned using lessons learned not only in Iraq, but also in such relief operations as those held in the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005.

Armed with the information that can only be learned in extreme conditions, AAFES' Waco Facilities Management Office was on the forefront of designing the new TFEs to better service the field needs of both troops and emergency responders.

"They have everything necessary to be a 'turn-key' operation," said Lt. Col. Dean. "These new TFEs give AAFES' commanding general a 48-hour response capability for any contingency occurring in the United States. AAFES has deployed these TFEs to many locations already with terrific results for our deployed military."

After nearly 112 years in military resale, it may be hard to imagine AAFES has more to learn about retail. But since Sewell and Hatcher ventured onto Iraq's back roads in 2003, the AAFES team has learned more about its people, services and support than those who created the exchange service in 1895 could have ever imagined.

"Our military and civilian personnel have demonstrated time and again that they are ready, willing and able to go where the troops go for as long as America's Armed Forces are called to serve in harm's way," said AAFES' Senior Enlisted Advisor Chief Master Sgt. Bryan Eaton. "These past four years in Iraq are not only important because of the support we have delivered to those 'on the ground,' but also to troops we will serve in the future because today AAFES is better prepared than ever before to fulfill its motto, 'We Go Where You Go.'"