- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

BAGHDAD — In the deserts of Iraq, Jack Frost may not be nipping at your nose and the halls are more likely to be decked out with sandbags and razor wire than holly, but even thousands of miles away from America, the holiday shopping season lives on military bases of Iraq.

In today’s military, the grimy PX, or post exchange, has been turned into a modern department store with aisles of CDs, DVDs, televisions, energy bars, magazines, fancy chocolates and cookies, paperback books, Tostitos, Christmas lights and coveted bags of Starbucks coffee, all with prices up to 20 percent below retail.

Store managers at the spacious PX on Camp Falcon in southern Baghdad have put up holiday posters and pumped in holiday music to give troops a taste of the good life back home.

“We’ve set up little Christmas trees with giveaway prizes,” said Charles Riggs, of Fort Lewis, Wash., a store manager wearing a Santa hat. “We’re just being as cheerful as possible. We know we’re thousands of miles from home. But it’s still Christmas.”

Shopping at the PX is one of the ways that troops get into the Christmas spirit. Sales at this PX have increased 100 percent during the holidays, from $15,000 a day to $32,000, manager Michael Cafferty said.

A company called the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) runs all the 12,000 PXes — as well as armed forces fast-food outlets, movie theaters, gas stations and hair salons on U.S. Army and Air Force bases in 35 countries, including 30 in Iraq.

Although it is run out of the Pentagon, AAFES generally receives no taxpayer money. Indeed, out of its 2004 revenue of $8 billion, AAFES poured its profit of $366 million back into the armed services.

But even in Iraq, the PX faces increased competition from the Web. Just like Americans back home, troops are using the Internet to order and hunt for holiday bargains. Troops go online to order flowers for their girlfriends or shoes for their husbands.

“They come in and ask me if we can match the prices that they find on the Internet,” Mr. Cafferty said. “On some things I can; some things I can’t.”

The store has launched a “Bonus Bucks” sale to keep troops loyal, and the AAFES Web site also offers troops goods at discounted prices. Troops can buy gifts to send home to their children and spouses.

Spc. Kimberly Hardnett, 25, of Arlington, Ga., found educational toys at Aafes.com to send her two children.

“They can start to learn their ABCs while I’m [away],” she said.

Mr. Cafferty said the hottest items this year are little teddy bears with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” embroidered on them. Greeting cards also are big sellers.

“Not the wish you were here ones, that’s for sure,” Mr. Cafferty said.

Camp Falcon even includes an Iraqi-run handicrafts shop, with antique Middle Eastern coffee sets. An Iraqi artisan on the base offers to make brass plates with images of troops’ families and loved ones for about $100.

But Christmas is a time of giving more than just spending. Many troops give each other gifts. Sgt. First Class Michael Flynn, 42, of Tampa, Fla., said one need not spend a lot of money to make a fellow service member happy.

“Everyone wants a new digital camera, or video camera or TV,” he said. “But sometimes you make things for each other or just buy little treats for each other. It goes a long way.”

At Camp Falcon, troops festoon their bases with Christmas decorations, which they can buy from the PX and which relatives send them. They cobble together treats from the PX and from back home and send out little invitations to their Christmas parties.

They might be tough, resilient soldiers. But the Army is their second family.

“We’ve had a lot of family members send a bunch of packages to us from back in the States,” said Pfc. Drew Patterson, 21, of Noblesville, Ind. “We have a big Christmas tree in our day room. Our first sergeant is going to dress up like Santa on Christmas Eve and give out all the gifts from under the Christmas tree.”

The terrorist attack on a military base in Mosul this week that killed 22 persons, including 18 Americans, has dampened the Christmas spirit for some of the troops, but others say they will not be pulled down by it.

“The attack in Mosul is definitely on my mind and I feel bad for their families, but Christmas for me is a time of celebration,” said Capt. Tad A. Gilbert, 28, of Tacoma, Wash.

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