By Amy Guckeen Tolson, USAG RedstoneMarch 30, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--They live to serve Soldiers.
For Mina Clay, Kathy Foote, Montina Hoefler, Sonia Lebron and Wendy Smith, working as Army & Air Force Exchange Service employees at the Post Exchange affords them the opportunity to thank Soldiers for the work that they do. But for this group of five, thanking them stateside wasn't enough - instead they decided to deploy with the Soldiers they serve day in and day out to fully show their gratitude.
"When you're over there, you realize what you're there for," said Hoefler, operations manager at the PX, who deployed to Iraq from May to December 2008 to serve as a team lead and store manager at the Exchange at FOB Warhorse. "You're there for the troops and that's what it's all about."
Of the approximately 43,000 AAFES employees worldwide, roughly 300 are deployed at any given time, according to AAFES spokesperson Chris Ward. While deployed, AAFES employees fill jobs similar to the ones they hold stateside, working long hours in retail and food service to keep the Soldiers clothed, fed and entertained while they are serving their country overseas. The chance to thank the Soldiers in person as they are fulfilling the mission in a war zone is an opportunity that attracts many of the employees to the voluntary assignment.
"It was me giving back to the Soldiers for everything they do for us," said Smith, who deployed to Iraq in 2004 and Qatar in 2010, and cannot wait for another deployment opportunity to arise. "Freedom is not free."
Living, working and eating alongside the men and women they serve, AAFES employees travel as the Soldiers travel, whether it be by convoy, helicopter or plane, learning the life of a Soldier, which at times includes bombs, gunfire and other enemy threats. While everyone thought Clay was crazy when she deployed to Balad from May 2007 to November 2008, for Clay, it was something she needed to do for herself and her country.
"I was not scared," Clay said. "That's the job. We have to do what we have to do."
The gratitude of the Soldiers who are thankful for the comforts of home in places like Iraq and Afghanistan make the risk well worth it for the PX employees, who would happily deploy again to serve the Soldiers.
"They appreciate it and thank you for everything," Smith said. "If we weren't there they wouldn't have anything. You have to be there to feel it."
Foote has deployed twice during her 25-year AAFES career - for 27 months to Iraq after Sept. 11th, and most recently to Afghanistan for 18 months, from which she returned in September. For Foote, the opportunity to deploy embodies the AAFES mission.
"It is such a rewarding experience," Foote said. "That's what our company does - AAFES is there to serve the military and that's how we do it best."