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AAFES marks 5 years of service and support to troops in Iraq

DALLAS -- Flying into Iraq five years ago on a C-130 400 feet above ground to avoid enemy fire, Dennis Hatcher knew that he and fellow American Craig Sewell faced a daunting task upon landing, as their mission was to set up the Army & Air Force Exchange Service's (AAFES) first mobile exchange in the war zone. When their boots hit the ground, they were led to their accommodations for the night - a tattered building with no doors or windows.

With the sounds of artillery echoing in the not-so-distant horizon and sand, dust and heat beating down on them, the two men instantly realized this was no ordinary assignment.

"The initial feeling upon first arriving could be summed up in one word - surreal," Mr. Hatcher said . "But we knew we had a job to do and that the troops were counting on us so we were anxious to get to work."

After meeting with local command, it was determined that Hatcher and Sewell would "set up shop" in what was previously an Iraqi airfield south of Baghdad. Armed with five duffel bags of merchandise consisting of baby wipes, protein bars and energy drinks, the pair set out to provide retail services on the tailgate of an old Toyota Landcruiser pickup parked along a dusty road.

"Despite the limited stock assortment, the troops were quite excited to have us there," Mr. Hatcher said. "When we saw the looks on their faces, it was priceless. The hard, war-torn looks of disparity turned to smiles as soon as they saw the AAFES T-shirts. We were treated like heroes."

Five years later, that lone tailgate has been replaced by 56 BX/PX facilities, 19 unit-run exchange operations, 98 name brand fast food restaurants, including Taco Bell, Subway and Burger King, and hundreds of services including laundry, barber and beauty operations throughout the Iraqi theater.

Overseeing the day-to-day operations of the myriad of AAFES operations downrange is a force of approximately 450 American civilians voluntarily deployed to Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom at any given time. To date, 3,305 AAFES associates have deployed to dangerous places around the world since September 2001. These associates, and the facilities they operate, often provide the only source of comfort items and necessities in combat locations.

From his home in Charleston, Ind., just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky., the retired Hatcher is grateful for the once in a lifetime experience and is mindful of those who selflessly leave friends and family to serve their country far from home.

"Although I knew it was dangerous and unpredictable, for some reason I did not feel scared," Mr. Hatcher said. "Being surrounded by our country's finest warriors gives one a feeling of security. And it was a true pleasure to serve these heroes."