Appearing much like a retail store in the U.S., the Army Air Force Exchange Service on Camp Taji, Iraq, stocks familiar items for deployed troops. AAFES exchanges are set up wherever the U.S. military has a contingent. There are currently around 450 AAFES associates in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Courtesy photo)
5/26/2011 - EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Memorial Day is a time to reflect on the sacrifices made by military members, both past and present. As tens of thousands of men and women continue to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's important to keep in mind their struggle and that having a little piece of home when you're far away from what‟s familiar is comforting.
For Russell Hinrichs, the Edwards Army Air Force Exchange Service general manager, spreading "home" to deployed troops in the Middle East has been the "best thing he's ever done."
Anywhere the United State military has a contingent, AAFES is asked to go there and set up a store. There are currently around 450 AAFES associates in in Iraq and Afghanistan and the stores are packed with familiar items - such as CDs and snacks - as well as submarine sandwiches and personal pan pizzas.
"I think it's a touch of home," said Mr. Hinrichs. "Unless you've been there, walking in and being able to buy stuff or even just a burger at Burger King or a pizza at Pizza Hut, is nice because it's hard what the military goes through. It's very stressful and this is a way for them to release and have a little touch of home."
Mr. Hinrichs has been deployed three times in the name of brining a level of comfort to the troops. From 2002-2006 Mr. Hinrichs spent six months in Qatar, three months in Kuwait and three in southern Iraq and a year-long tour in Iraq.
"The military gives us the structure - whether it's a tent or a hard structure - and we [AAFES] go and order the fixtures and merchandise for it," said Mr. Hinrichs. "We get everything in and open it up. Whatever the base gives us, we make do and go at it."
Mr. Hinrichs first helped set up and manage a small store at Camp Snoopy, Qatar, and then helped set up an exchange at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, at the start of the war in Iraq. On his second tour, Mr. Hinrichs spent the first half of that deployment in Kuwait City coordinating with AAFES Command in Dallas, Texas, as to where to build new stores and moving merchandise to fill them. During the second leg he functioned as the team leader at Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq.
For his last tour, Mr. Hinrichs found himself in Iraq for a year, working as the retail business manager for all of Iraq.
"We coordinated building brand new stores in Iraq, setting floor plans and then implementing the stores," he recalled. "It's hard work and it's indescribable compared to what we do here. It's very high pace."
But all of the hard work does not go unnoticed.
"Several Airmen across Iraq and Afghanistan travel frequently during their deployment," said Staff Sgt. Angelique Smythe, 95th Air Base Wing Public Affairs, who is currently deployed with U.S. Air Forces Central Public Affairs. "Something as simple as shaving cream for a clean shave or soap for a good shower after a multi-day convoy makes all of the difference in the world. We appreciate AAFES for going where we go and taking care of our servicemembers by providing those basic needs and more."
That appreciation goes both ways, and Mr. Hinrichs often reflects on his first-hand experience with the sacrifices made by service members.
"It was the best thing I've ever done, and I'd do it again," Mr. Hinrichs said. "You can't explain the feeling that you get when somebody's been out in the field and they walk in and say, 'Thank you.'"