HEIDELBERG, Germany — Most base cashiers don’t know how rough a deployment to Afghanistan can be — or the satisfaction they might find helping frontline troops.
To help workers better understand life in the field, press officers from the Army and Air Force Exchange Service-Europe deployed to Bagram air base to develop an orientation video for deploying employees, said Jeane McDonald, an AAFES spokeswoman who recently returned from Afghanistan.
The former-Soviet air base just north of Kabul is home to 18th Airborne Corps soldiers pursuing remaining al-Qaida in Afghanistan. While Brown and Root contractors have improved the base since U.S. troops first arrived more than a year ago, life along the dusty airstrip remains austere, McDonald said.
“Conditions are pretty tough; you don’t have all the comforts of home,” she said.
After 20 years with AAFES in the States and Europe, McDonald found herself downrange for the first time — jotting down observations for future volunteer sales people.
While deployed, McDonald interviewed AAFES employees and taped footage of daily life — which in Afghanistan means portable toilets, tent cities and lots of dust.
Getting there was a challenge, McDonald said. She spent several hours in the belly of an Air Force C-17 cargo plane, making stops in Turkey and Kuwait, before touching down at Bagram.
After 90 days, AAFES attempts to fly associates home for a 10-day rest, Edgar said. Many AAFES workers are veterans of several deployed locations, said Maj. Mitch Edgar, a fellow AAFES press officer. All forward-deployed sales associates are volunteers.
“A lot of folks move from one contingency to another,” Edgar said.
Operations in Bagram have matured, Edgar said. On Christmas Eve, AAFES opened a larger PX in a renovated building.
In the early days, staff would fly a few crates of cigarettes and sodas from Uzbekistan. For the past year, lines of troops snaked into a tiny shop with a limited inventory.
Now, many AAFES supplies go by sea to Karachi, Pakistan, Edgar said. From there supplies go across land, by rail and truck, into Afghanistan, he said. Where troops once raved at grabbing a Coke and a bag of potato chips, now most are stocking up on DVDs and music, Edgar said.
The shop also stocks Afghan souveniers for troops who don’t get a chance to visit the local bazaars, Edgar said.
Soldiers are often detailed to help out, Edgar said. The exchange recently hired some ethnic Tajiks to augment the staff.
For Jason Crosby, who began working for AAFES in Germany, working in Bagram means training the local Afghans to work in the field exchange. Before Afghanistan, Crosby worked in Kosovo.
Compared to previous deployments, small exchanges supporting small concentrations of troops pose a challenge for AAFES, Edgar said.
Each month, a “rodeo” to troops stationed in Kabul is sponsored. Escorted by armed troops, AAFES convoys about an hour south of the Afghan capital, where U.S. Marines serve as embassy guards, and other troops support peacekeeping missions.
Shortly after U.S. troops began hunting terrorists in Operation Enduring Freedom, AAFES followed.
In Oct. 2001, AAFES launched its first field exchange in Oman, Edgar said. Where troops went, stores followed — in Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Qatar, to name a few.
Currently, AAFES has 21 shops in 11 countries, Edgar said. In some locations, they also have food service and barber shops, he said.
“In every exchange we asked to put up, we’ve been able to move in product,” Edgar said.
On an average day, the Bagram PX takes in between $34,000 and $37,000 in total retail sales, Edgar said. But the company still takes a loss because of the costs involved in stocking everything from the latest music to flip-flops.
“Sure, there’s a lot of retail sales,” Edgar said. “But ultimately, it’s a loss operation. That’s just a part of our job.”
AAFES gears up for Persian
In a building in Mainz-Kastel, Germany, Army and Air Force Exchange Service planners are getting ready to support the massive buildup of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf.
In one room at AAFES-Europe headquarters, people never stop.
“This war room is running all hours, along with our plans office,” said AAFES spokesman Maj. Mitch Edgar. “Certainly, we’re gearing up, just like everyone else.”
Normally, AAFES staffs only one operations officer, Lt. Col. Bart Chess.
But recently, AAFES beefed up its stable of experts to plan for the unknown, as thousands of U.S. troops head toward Southwest Asia.
The staff has experience serving troops in Operation Southern Watch, the Kuwait-based mission to enforce one of two no-fly zones over Iraq. They know how to get products from the States into foreign countries, Edgar said.
“We supported Northern Watch and Southern Watch in the Gulf region for quite some time,” Edgar said of a decade-long program that has had U.S. and British planes flying over southern and northern sections of Iraq.
Deployments to the Balkans and Afghanistan have also prepared AAFES to react to troops movements, Edgar said.
First, AAFES crews fly or drive out to the soldiers with a few boxes of essentials, and stay as long as supplies last, Edgar said. Once a commander identifies the need for a field exchange, AAFES builds more permanent shops.
Edgar said he can’t talk about new sites AAFES might be deploying to.
Currently, AAFES staff field 21 exchanges in 11 countries.
“We’re in a lot of sites in the States and the Persian Gulf,” Edgar said.
More than 90 AAFES workers are currently deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom, while many other staff exchanges in the Balkans, Edgar said.
Already, more than a handful of volunteer salespeople have been identified to deploy in support future operations, Edgar said. He could not discuss where they might be stationed.
“We stand ready, and we’re waiting for the next call,” Edgar said.
— Rick Scavetta