Subscribe

Discounts and hourly raffles abound, while monthly calendars are packed with midnight specials, bargain matinees and other promotions.

The 2003 summer release of the new “Harry Potter” book dominated one weekend witching hour. It was a huge success in places such as Wiesbaden, where sales tripled.

As midnight neared, scores of youngsters appeared, some in wizard gear. Just happy to be a part of it, adults stood by and watched their money disappear.

“It has a believable story line,” librarian Mary Deheck said of the book as she stood at the head of the line. “It pulls you in.”

The same could be said of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.

Across the theater, AAFES remains a popular draw. It continues to be the largest employer of family members, and sales are up about 7 percent this year, due in part to special events that have had a distinctly family feature to them.

A successful promotion will “get them [spouses and children] out of the house, so they are not worrying about things,” said Georg L. Main, manager of the Baumholder, Germany, post exchange.

U.S. military families, including those living in Europe, have had much to worry about this year. The war in Iraq has exacted a heavy toll, and stress on the home front remains a constant factor for families of deployed soldiers. The 1st Armored Division, operating in Baghdad, readily comes to mind.

Because it’s such an integral part of any military community in Europe, an AAFES operation is going to be affected in some way when war is waged. Profits matter, the community no less so.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Army Maj. Dave Accetta, spokesman for AAFES-Europe.

When 1st AD troops deployed earlier this year, many of the spouses who worked for AAFES quit or scaled back their hours. Some opted to leave Europe to spend time with their extended families back in the United States, while others decided to put home and family first.

“We lost a significant number of spouses,” said Joe Giuffreda, vice president of AAFES-Europe. The spring and early summer “were a time of great flux. There were a lot of changes in people’s lives.”

Main said his work force shrunk by more than 40 percent. To keep the operation running effectively, people were cross-trained to learn different aspects of the operation and schedules were adjusted to accommodate the employees who remained.

“We wanted to maintain a degree of normalcy during this hectic time,” Main said in an interview this fall. “There is constant reassurance, constant. [The challenges] have brought everybody closer together.”

In a way, an AAFES exchange is a lot like a village green, only heavier on the concrete and asphalt. Whether they come to work, browse or buy, people find these community hubs to be an ideal place to commune with friends and acquaintances.

Many of the special events this year were designed to boost morale on the home front, a sort of civic salve. In Würzburg, people spun a large game wheel for prizes. In Baumholder, babies raced each other for booty. And in Vicenza, Italy, a Bike Rodeo drew large crowds.

While promotions are nothing new, the war spurred store managers and company officials to look for creative ways to serve the home front. In March, AAFES launched its “Operation Family” campaign, an outreach program that offers family-oriented activities as well as chances for families of deployed soldiers to interact with each other.

AAFES officials say they are charged with making a profit, but that all proceeds go toward capital improvement projects and payments to Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs. So far, the annual allotment to MWR is running ahead of last year’s pace.

For the first three quarters of the fiscal year, which ends Jan. 31, the MWR payment stood at $13.1 million, up from $11.7 million for the same period last year. AAFES-Europe’s MWR payment in fiscal 2002 was nearly $16.1 million.

Accetta said AAFES is under pressure to turn a profit, but company officials also know they must not lose sight of the people they serve.

“It is a constant challenge,” Accetta said, “regardless of whether we are supporting a contingency operation or not. We have an obligation to our customers to provide good services and products, but also at a fair price.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up