By Col. Bud Lacroix
Logistics Support Operations Officer
21st Theater Sustainment Command
In my 28 years of service in the United States military, I've been a Marine, a Soldier, and a global traveler. I've seen the serene landscapes of Japan, experienced the war-torn regions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and walked the historic terrains of Germany and Poland. Amidst these diverse experiences, one constant companion has been the Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES).
AAFES, our unsung hero, has been more than just a provider of goods and services. It has been a slice of home in foreign lands, a morale booster in challenging times, and a lifeline that bridged the miles between us and our loved ones. Yet, the true depth of AAFES's impact and the breadth of its support often remain underappreciated.
I want to shed light on the critical role of AAFES, drawing from my personal experiences and those of my comrades. I will explore the history and mission of AAFES, delve into the diverse ways it supports deployed Service Members, and share personal anecdotes that highlight the difference AAFES has made in our lives. I will also examine the challenges AAFES faces and how it navigates these obstacles, all while maintaining its unwavering support for U.S Armed Forces Service Members and families.
Looking toward the future, I will share the ongoing initiatives and potential improvements in AAFES's support for our deployed heroes. Through these insights, I hope to help others comprehensively understand AAFES's role as an unseen hero in our military, and highlight its invaluable contribution to our nation's defense.
AAFES has been steadfast throughout my military career. However, its roots extend far beyond my personal experience, reaching back to the 19th century. Founded on July 25, 1895, when the War Department issued General Order No. 46, AAFES was directed to establish an exchange at every post. This historic mandate marked the inception of what would grow into a global operation, serving military personnel and their families in more than 30 countries, five U.S. territories, and all 50 states.
AAFES is more than just a retailer. It's a non-appropriated fund entity of the Department of Defense. Its dual mission is to provide quality merchandise and services to its customers at competitive prices and generate earnings that supplement military morale, welfare, and recreation programs. This unique model allows AAFES to give back nearly two-thirds of its profits to the military community.
Throughout my 28 years of service, I've witnessed how AAFES continually adapts to meet the changing needs of Service Members. From the bustling PowerZones filled with the latest electronics to the Express locations providing quick essentials, AAFES has always offered comfort and familiarity, no matter where the Army sends me.
Role of AAFES in Supporting Deployed Service Members
Transitioning from the general background of AAFES, it's essential to highlight its specific role in supporting deployed Service Members. When you're thousands of miles away from home, deployed in unfamiliar territory, even the smallest reminders of home can make a world of difference. This is where AAFES shines. Their mission goes beyond just providing goods and services; they offer a slice of home, a morale boost, and a lifeline that often bridges the miles between us and our loved ones.
AAFES was more than just a place to pick up necessities during my deployments. It was where I could grab a cup of coffee that tasted just like it would back home, pick up a magazine or book to escape into for a while, or find a gift to send back to my family. These moments of normalcy, provided by AAFES, were invaluable amidst the often chaotic and stressful deployment environment.
AAFES plays a crucial role in maintaining the morale of deployed Service Members. They often organize events and activities that provide much-needed entertainment and relaxation. I recall times when AAFES would bring in popular American entertainers for concerts and shows, which were always a big hit among us Service Members.
In addition to supporting me as a Service Member, AAFES also extends support to the families of deployed Service Members. Families can send care packages to their loved ones overseas through their online and catalog services. I can't overstate the joy and comfort of receiving a package from home filled with your favorite snacks, a new book, or personal care items.
In essence, AAFES is a comforting presence in the often challenging deployment environment, providing not just material goods but emotional support and a connection to home.
Case Studies of AAFES Support
Throughout my deployments, I've had numerous encounters with AAFES that underscored their commitment to supporting Service Members. To illustrate the profound impact AAFES has on our lives while deployed, I'd like to share a few of these experiences.
One of the most memorable experiences was during Operation Iraqi Freedom-1. I was deployed to Balad, Iraq, as the support operations officer for transportation for the 7th Corps Support Group. In the summer of 2003, I had the unique opportunity to assist in bringing the first AAFES to Balad. This was no small feat given the challenging circumstances, but the importance of providing a touch of home to our Service Members was a powerful motivator. The opening of this AAFES location was a significant morale boost for everyone in the area—I still remember the candy bar and soda I enjoyed.
However, we didn't stop there. We also laid the groundwork for opening the "Reel Time" Theater in Balad. Although the theater opened two months after I redeployed from Iraq, knowing I had a hand in creating a space where my fellow Service Members could relax and enjoy a movie was incredibly rewarding.
During my time in Afghanistan and Japan, AAFES was a constant presence, providing everything from holiday meals and decorations to a mix of local and American goods. AAFES's efforts helped lift our spirits and give a sense of normalcy in otherwise challenging environments.
These are just a few examples of how AAFES has supported me and my fellow Service Members during our deployments. Each of these experiences underscores the invaluable role AAFES plays in our lives, providing goods and services and a sense of home and normalcy, no matter where we are in the world.
Challenges and Innovative Solutions: The AAFES Story
The task of providing support to deployed Service Members around the world is not a simple one. AAFES encounters a unique set of challenges in fulfilling its mission, which includes logistical obstacles and the necessity to adapt to the diverse needs of Service Members in various locations.
A significant challenge lies in the logistics of establishing and maintaining AAFES locations in remote and often volatile regions. I had a firsthand experience of this when we set up the first AAFES in Balad, Iraq. The logistics of ensuring the safe transport of goods, creating the necessary infrastructure, and maintaining a steady supply chain in a war zone required meticulous planning and coordination.
Despite these hurdles, AAFES has consistently risen to the occasion, demonstrating remarkable resilience and adaptability. They have devised innovative solutions to these challenges, including robust logistics strategies. By leveraging military transport capabilities, they have established efficient supply chains, ensuring that Service Members can access the goods and services they need, regardless of their deployment location.
One of their most innovative solutions is the introduction of AAFES POGs. These lightweight cardboard discs were introduced as a form of currency in overseas military bases, primarily as a practical solution to the high cost and weight of shipping traditional metal coins.
The first AAFES POGs were introduced in November 2001 at U.S. facilities in Afghanistan. Initially, these POGs were intended to be a temporary fix and carried only basic information identifying their face value. However, over the years, they evolved into something much more significant.
POGs began to feature a variety of designs, transforming from simple currency into collectibles. Some POGs depicted images of troops, aircraft, and even comic book characters. There were even POGs featuring NASCAR drivers, reflecting the diverse interests of our Service Members.
This evolution added a personal touch to the POGs, making them not just a form of currency, but also a form of expression and a memento of service.
Despite the challenges, AAFES remains committed to its mission of serving those who serve our country. Their unwavering dedication is a testament to their role as an unseen hero in our military, providing much-appreciated support to our deployed Service Members.
The Future of AAFES and Ongoing Initiatives
As we look towards the future, AAFES continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of Service Members. Their commitment to serving those who serve our country remains steadfast, and they are constantly seeking ways to improve and expand their services.
Now that I find myself back overseas, I am once again reminded of the importance of AAFES, not just to me but also to my wife and two children. AAFES services and products provide a sense of familiarity and comfort that is invaluable when you're far from home.
One location that stands out, particularly, is the AAFES at Ramstein, Germany. The scale and variety of goods and services available are truly impressive, reflecting the dedication of AAFES to cater to the diverse needs of Service Members and their families. It's a testament to how far AAFES has come since its inception and a promising indicator of its future direction.
Conclusion: The Unseen Heroes
Looking ahead, I am confident that AAFES will continue to evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of Service Members and their families. Their commitment to service, innovative solutions to unique challenges, and unwavering dedication to supporting our military community make them an integral part of our military experience.
As I stand in the impressive AAFES at Ramstein with my family, I am reminded of the journey we've all been on. I am reminded of the countless ways AAFES has supported us and am filled with gratitude. For every cup of coffee before a mission, every holiday celebration in a war zone, every POG used as currency, and every moment of rest in their facilities, I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who contributes to the AAFES mission, our unseen heroes.
Reflecting on my 28 years of service, it's clear that AAFES has been a constant presence, providing invaluable support no matter where I found myself. They are the unseen heroes who serve those who serve our country, and for that, we are eternally grateful.