Living overseas can be difficult for many service members and their families due to not having many of the conveniences they are used to in the United States, but that’s where the Army and Air Force Exchange Service comes into play.
Often in several locations around a base or post, they bring a little bit of home to troops stationed wherever they may be outside of the continental U.S., whether it be a familiar restaurant or stateside gas prices, they do so much more.
In many ways, AAFES is woven into the very fabric of many service members’ lives and well-being. In fact, out of the approximately 34,000 associates employed by AAFES, 85 percent are connected to the military in some form.
Many of these associates are dependents, spouses or other family members. However, amongst their ranks are military retirees, veterans and wounded warriors. Since 2010, AAFES has hired approximately 1,000 wounded warriors, making them one of the largest employers of wounded warriors, coming second only to the U.S. Army.
“One of our mottos is ‘Family Serving Family,’” said Thomas C. Shull, AAFES director and chief executive officer. “These are important aspects because it does tie back to a sense of family and a commitment to family. Our wounded warriors are always welcome because their sacrifices often go beyond what a normal career would entail.”
It is also due to this makeup that Shull believes AAFES lives up to another one of its mottos — “Deeds Not Words.”
“Getting back to the 85 percent who are connected to the military, they actually understand that it’s all about what we actually do to provide support, not what we say we are going to do,” Shull said. “A lot of civilians always talk about, ‘We’ve got to support our troops.’ Saying it is one thing, maybe putting a sticker on the back of your car is one thing, but to actually do it is a completely different thing. It takes a different level of effort to go into Poland in a mobile field Exchange and endure some of the hardships our service members do.”
Since 9/11, more than 4,500 AAFES associates have deployed to combat zones to provide support to troops. During his visit to the Kaiserslautern Military Community, Shull even recognized some of the AAFES’ Europe and Southwest Asia members who have gone above and beyond to ensure service members were able to get basic necessities or recreational desires at an Exchange facility to include hygiene items, clothing items and first-run movies.
“One of our mottos is, ‘We go where you go,’” Shull said. “The military associates in particular help us stay aligned with that.”
AAFES has more than 70 positions for military associates. In fact, as part of his visit to the KMC, Shull oversaw a change of command where U.S. Army Col. Scott McFarland took command of the AAFES’ Europe and Southwest Asia region.
“Historically (since about 1940), we’ve always had a command in Europe and Southwest Asia, as that mission has expanded,” Shull said. “In the Pacific, we have an Air Force colonel who is the commander of the Pacific region. … That really helps us be aligned with the mission as they change, particularly (outside of the continental United States) in remote areas, and keeps us aligned with the needs of service members and their families.”
To provide for the needs of families at home stations, AAFES takes several steps, many focusing on members overseas. For instance, AAFES serves approximately 3.2 million school lunches every year. They also run seven plants that provide baked goods and bottled water to support military overseas, as well as serving more than 100 million meals at Exchange restaurants.
They do all this from 2,500 facilities in all 50 states and 33 countries, all the while increasing their brand focus and allowing AAFES to continue to focus on Airmen, Soldiers, their families and veterans.
There are even plans to implement programs to help not only build AAFES brand focus but also expand benefits to customers.
One program is the expansion of the Military Star credit card for use at commissaries. The Ramstein commissary already accepts the card.
“We recognized that when a customer shops, he or she tends to shop at the commissary and the Exchange often on the same trip,” Shull said. “They definitely shop at both, and we wanted to provide a credit card they could use at both. Plus, it’s lower interest (than most other retail credit cards).”
In addition to providing a card that can be used at both locations, the card also gives commissaries the added benefit of not charging a third-party fee. Thus, it has the potential to help the commissary lower prices and keep them low.
On top of that, they have a debt-forgiveness program in the case a family loses a service member who had a debt on the credit card. If the surviving family members show AAFES they can’t pay the balance, AAFES forgives the debt entirely.
“We don’t want to add another burden to a family who has lost a loved one,” Shull said. “We will expunge the debt rather than place an additional burden on them.”
Another program is the Veterans Online Shopping Benefit. Scheduled to launch Veterans Day 2017, the program will allow any honorably discharged veteran to shop with AAFES online. Veterans’ statuses will be checked via http://VetVerify.org. Veterans can already go online and verify eligibility, with a chance they may be able to shop before Nov. 11 as part of a beta test.
Also, due to customers shopping online more, AAFES is looking to leverage more of their Exchanges to allow online orders to be shipped from local stores. The KMC Exchange already participates in this program. With it, the Exchange is used as a distribution center to fill online orders that are close to its zip code. By doing this, it is estimated that orders will be delivered approximately a week earlier than competitors.
So whether they are getting an online order to you quicker, making your shopping experience easier or offering something reminiscent of home to you, AAFES will be where you are.