AAFES plans expansion on bases in Iraq
July 2, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — The American military isn’t the only group that has learned valuable lessons on how to operate in places such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
The main agency that supplies food and all other merchandise that screams Americana to troops in those countries is rapidly expanding its presence in Iraq. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service is seemingly opening new locations every week and has plans to expand its current operations in several key locations.
But what could AAFES do to make serving in and around Baghdad a better experience?
“Definitely a bigger PX,” said Sgt. Morocco Cornett, who was standing in line Sunday at the exchange at Baghdad International Airport. “A Dairy Queen would be nice. Or maybe Baskin-Robbins.”
Those suggestions bring a smile to the face of Dave Nelson, the AAFES general manager for Baghdad.
“That’s our plan,” he said, stating that a larger exchange and more restaurant choices are in the works.
AAFES has had only a trailer selling a limited menu of Burger King items for a few weeks.
“Right now, it’s on pace to be the best in the world saleswise,” he said.
That would partially explain the constant long lines in front of the trailer. Those lines are easily matched by another line to get into the exchange nearby. But soldiers standing in line Sunday said the wait is much shorter than it used to be.
It took Spc. Ramon Berenguer of the 1st Armored Division’s 1st Battalion, 1st Cavalry Regiment only about 20 minutes to get in the door. That’s much better than the five hours it took his wife, Spc. Mayte Berenguer, to get into the facility when it first opened.
Five hours for some pudding and soda.
“Just anything [to] get away from the MREs [Meals, Ready to Eat],” Ramon Berenguer said. “Groceries and stuff like that. MREs are pretty bad for breakfast.”
The Berenguers snagged some Pop Tarts this time.
Spc. Nicholas Anderson, a Reservist with the 705th Transportation Company from Dayton, Ohio, was after bigger game: a television.
“I don’t think it exists in Iraq,” he said after a fruitless search. “So I gave up, and now I’ve got snacks, a magazine and cards.”
“Greeting cards are a godsend,” he said. “They save a lot of hand cramps.”
Anderson probably could have purchased some cream to relieve those sore hands. The airport exchange, one of the busiest and largest in the country, is big on toiletry items. It’s also big on snacks and clothing such as underwear, socks and T-shirts. But there’s not a lot else on hand, so the resemblance to a Wal-Mart in the States would end with some friendly smiles and low prices.
Nelson said he hopes that will soon change.
AAFES wants to build a 20,000-square-foot, air-conditioned facility on the Baghdad base that would be five times larger than its present structure. If a site is approved, that would mean fewer lines, because more people could actually fit inside. And the number of products carried would expand significantly.
Marie Clift, the AAFES general manager for Iraq, says one of the reasons the lines are shorter at the airport now is that the agency has opened several smaller exchanges around Baghdad.
AAFES also opened up larger facilities in places such as Mosul, Balad, al-Sad, Kirkuk, Tikrit and Bucca. It has also arranged to help the Army and Air Force open dozens of other smaller stores that military units operate in far-flung locations. Those units sometimes make trips to the larger facilities, load up, then sell the items to servicemembers at the same price AAFES sells them.
“The command is very anxious that we do our best to get things out to everyone,” Clift said.
And she’s not about to argue. Clift has a nephew serving in the Army in Iraq and her niece in the Air Force is headed to the country this summer. AAFES employees, she says, are in Iraq because they want to serve.
Nelson, the AAFES general manager for Baghdad, said: “I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. Other than missing my family, the memories I’m going to have here will last a lifetime.”
He relates one story: The store had already closed its doors for the day recently when some soldiers pulled up and were disappointed they couldn’t get in. It was the first time they’d had a chance to visit an exchange since the war started, they said. So Nelson and crew opened the store back up.
“One of the guys said it was one of the best days of his life,” Nelson said.
“He had just seen a picture of his baby that he had never seen before and then he got to buy some things in here.
“It’s amazing what a Coke and a bag of chips can do for morale.”