Lackland Air Force Base, Texas –
Three grandmothers are among a record six Lackland civilians voluntarily deployed in Iraq and Kuwait to provide caring service to Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines as they eat and shop in Army and Air Force Exchange Service restaurants and stores.
Annie Robinson, 65, who works at a BX/PX in Camp Speicher in northern Iraq's Tikrit, has several grandchildren.
"Annie is very customer oriented," Pam Veit, 58, a grandmother herself, said by telephone from Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, where she is an AAFES human resources manager who takes care of AAFES deployees' needs.
"She always has a kind word," Ms. Veit said of Ms. Robinson, who was a cashier in central checkout at the Lackland Main Exchange. "I imagine she's providing a lot of support to the young troops out there because she reminds them of their grandmother, and she's very personable and caring.
"To give anybody support, that's a plus, especially in that area," she said of the forward operating base at Tikrit.
Ms. Robinson is on her first deployment, and Ms. Veit is on her second. "There's just nothing like it," Ms. Veit said of providing service to the troops in a war zone. "I don't know how to describe it. You just feel very rewarded that you can assist in getting the things that they need, even just talking to them."
She doesn't get as much chance for interaction with the troops as she did when she worked in checkout and sales at a store in Camp Udairi (since renamed Camp Buehring) in Kuwait about 10 miles from Iraq. About five miles farther from Iraq is Udairi Range, where Airmen deploying for convoy duty receive their final training. Now the Airmen deploying for convoy duty, after initial training at Camp Bullis by instructors from Lackland's 342nd Training Squadron, are manning long-distance convoys into Iraq from Camp Arifjan, where Ms. Veit is based.
"Even after three years," Ms. Veit said of her first deployment, "I still hear the majority of them saying, 'Thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate it.' They know, because they're over here. They know that you're here, away from home, family and friends, to help them. So they really appreciate that. And they're so grateful.
"But really," she hastened to add, "we're the ones who are grateful to them for being here and what they are doing, the missions that they are fulfilling."
It was 7:15 p.m. when she was reached in her Kuwait office, and "I usually come in about 6 o'clock in the morning," Ms. Veit said. She had just returned to the office from visiting AAFES workers at Camp Buehring. "We work long days," she said, laughing.
Her first deployment, including 12 months of voluntary extensions, was for 18 months, from April 2003 to October 2004. "I left here because I had a commitment to take care of three of my grandchildren," she said. "Their mother was deployed to Korea, and my son joined the Army and was going to be going to Iraq."
She returned in July. "Most of us start out with a six-month tour," she said. "I've just extended for another three months, so I'm going to be here for at least nine months."
AAFES, according to General Manager Julie Cosby of San Antonio, has served side-by-side with troops in tents and trucks since the first formal exchanges were established in 1895. She said six associates from San Antonio - the most at any one time - are continuing this tradition. She said they are among about 450 AAFES associates serving voluntarily at exchange facilities scattered throughout Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Others deployed from San Antonio are the third grandmother, Anna Cardenas, from the Military Clothing Sales Store; Ibis Rosario, from the BX; David Schoenfeld, the Burger King manager; and Anthony Favelas, who went directly overseas after being hired by AAFES in San Antonio.
Ms. Cosby said AAFES operates 53 exchanges in OIF/OEF, plus more than 180 fast-food outlets, including 29 Subways, 17 Burger Kings, 16 Pizza Huts, five Taco Bells and more than 40 various coffee shops.
In addition to delivering traditional retail products, AAFES operates 69 call centers with 1,646 phones that provide calls to the United States for as little as 19 cents a minute. AAFES also provides a variety of services to deployed troops, to include barber, beauty, photo and gift shops, as well as clothing alterations and "even relaxing day spas," Ms. Cosby said.
"We go where you go!" Ms. Cosby said, quoting an AAFES motto.
It's a winning combination, Ms. Veit indicated, since the troops appreciate the support from back home and the AAFES deployees feel rewarded for supporting them.