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David Swenson, center, general manager of Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores on Okinawa, hands over a nearly $19,000 check to Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society officials at Camp Foster, Okinawa, Oct. 20, 2023.

David Swenson, center, general manager of Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores on Okinawa, hands over a nearly $19,000 check to Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society officials at Camp Foster, Okinawa, Oct. 20, 2023. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Army and Air Force Exchange Service is partnering with the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society to accept donations at its stores on Marine bases across the Pacific.

The groups signed a memorandum of agreement on Sept. 13 to accept $1 and $5 pinpad donations at checkout counters in Japan and South Korea, Army Staff Sgt. Mark Kauffman, an AAFES spokesman, wrote in an emailed statement Oct. 2.

The first batch of donations — about $19,000 collected in the first month — was handed over Friday at the Camp Foster exchange during a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the partnership.

The Relief Society uses the donations to provide several programs and services that assist active-duty and retired sailors, Marines and their families. These include interest-free emergency loans, financial and education assistance.

“We’re very happy that [the Marines] brought it to our attention,” David Swenson, general manager of AAFES stores on Okinawa, said at Friday’s ceremony. “It’s a very worthwhile fund.”

Patrons at Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores on Marine bases in the Pacific now have the option of donating to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.

Patrons at Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores on Marine bases in the Pacific now have the option of donating to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The partnership is the brainchild of Marine Col. David Banning, commander of Headquarters and Support Battalion at Camp Butler, Lt. Col. Spencer Szewczyk said Friday at the Foster exchange.

Banning saw an option to donate to Army and Air Force relief groups while checking out at an exchange at nearby Kadena Air Base. He approached AAFES in the spring about doing the same for sailors and Marines on Marine bases in the Pacific.

“Turned out, it was very easy,” Szewczyk said. “Nobody asked the question before.”

The exchange service used pre-existing agreements with the other aid groups to quickly set up Relief Society donations, Swenson said. After a brief beta test, the donation option was rolled out to self-checkout and staffed counters on 20 Pacific installations.

The agreement is for 10 years, society spokeswoman Gillian Gonzalez said by phone Oct. 13.

Feedback about the program has been positive so far.

“It’s really good that they’re opening people’s eyes because not everyone is going to search for something like that,” Pfc. Hunter Sly, a firefighter at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, said Friday as he checked out at the Foster exchange. “If you put it in front of them when they’re trying to do something, they’re probably going to look at it.”

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class David Brown, who works in emergency and family medicine at U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa, said he received an emergency loan from the society in the past.

“A lot of the population here wants to help out,” Brown said Friday at the exchange. “They just streamlined the process. I think it’s great.”

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

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