By Jennifer Clampet (USAG Wiesbaden)August 10, 2009
WIESBADEN, Germany - Army and Air Force Exchange Service "deployees" know about the sporadic gunfire, the truck convoys, the constant sound of mortar rounds and insurgent attacks that emerge from giant sandstorms.
"You couldn't see anything, and then gunfire," said Gary Rose, AAFES' region food program specialist in Mainz-Kastel. In 2003 and 2006 Rose served as an AAFES contingency operations specialist in Iraq.
"The gunfire was coming out of (the dust cloud)," said Rose. "On our convoys U.S. military escorts would blend in to protect us. And that's when the reality of what we do comes to play."
AAFES' No. 1 mission is to provide support to deployed troops. For the current wars in Iraq that has meant providing access to Red Bull, pillows and DVDs in combat zones, among other things.
But employees aren't ordered to work in downrange areas.
Since 2003 hundreds of AAFES employees have volunteered to operate remote AAFES stores in the regions included in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. AAFES officials call the volunteers deployees.
According to AAFES-Europe public affairs officer Lt. Col. David Konop, 38 employees from the Wiesbaden area are currently deployed.
Most often the employees do it because they want to support the Soldiers, said Konop.
"By providing a shopping experience or serving a Whopper, it gives troops a moment when they can forget where they are, and (it) makes them feel like they're back home," said Chief Master Sgt. Jeffry Helm, senior enlisted adviser for AAFES.
AAFES deployees are often store managers, accountants, logistics specialists and retail workers who are deployed for periods of six months to a year. And while deployees recognize the dangers of working in the downrange areas, they also know the rewards.
After less than two months in Al Taqaddum, Iraq, Tony Mawson and his crew completed their No. 1 goal - opening the first PX on the old Saddam Hussein-era air base.
On Thanksgiving Day 2003, 200 Soldiers lined up outside the front door of the 5,000-square-foot facility. In one day, the store sold $40,000 worth of merchandise - all food since the store hadn't started receiving shipments of DVDs, magazines or other products.
"It was a great feeling because these guys had been out in the desert," said Mawson, now the AAFES retail business manager on Mainz-Kastel. "The best reward was the 'thank you for being here,' from the Soldiers."
For Mike Deerhake, general manager for AAFES' tri-border area in Europe, the shock on Soldiers' faces at the realization of what AAFES could provide so close to war zones is enough reward.
Deerhake recalled riding over to a group of Marines sitting at the edge of the Iraq and Kuwait demilitarized zone in 1999 delivering bottles of Culligan's water and ice cream.
"It's amazing what we could open up and sell," said Deerhake. "The Soldiers couldn't believe it."
Rose, Mawson and Deerhake were among 50 deployees honored July 20 at an AAFES barbecue.
Recalling stories of deployments, Rose said the moments on convoys when the trucks came under fire were scary. The encounter with insurgents who appeared out of the dusty chaos in Iraq made him understand the reality of Iraq.
"If we (the AAFES employees) ever became more important than the mission, then it was time to come home," said Rose. (AAFES media relations provided some information for this story)