In Iraq, Civilian 'Troops' Are UnKnown Heroes

Prior to May 2005, Darren Braswell, a 36 year-old father of three from Riverdale, Ga., was invisible to customers of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES).

AAFES is the retail organization that operates stores, fast food restaurants and a variety of services for soldiers, airmen, military retirees and their families around the world. Mr. Braswell’s job was as a warehouse foreman at AAFES’ Atlanta distribution center. His work was important, receiving and accounting for merchandise from manufacturers and vendors and storing it on floor to ceiling fixtures in huge warehouses so that it could be easily maintained and located to keep post and base exchanges well stocked.

AAFES cannot operate without this efficient link in the supply chain, but customers rarely recognize the behind the scene effort that results in a good shopping experience.

Mr. Braswell’s low profile changed dramatically last May when he volunteered to deploy to work as a sales technician in one of AAFES’ 30 stores serving America’s troops in Iraq. He left a responsible, relatively comfortable and safe job and his family behind to make sure the troops fighting a long war far from home and comfort had access to merchandise that improved their quality of life, kept them relaxed and refreshed during down time, and connected them to things familiar back in the ole USA.

He became one of the friendly AAFES faces troops could count on to locate merchandise they wanted and to pass the time with in a store. When you’re in a war-torn country, surrounded by a threat that can emerge on any street corner, a Post Exchange is usually a safe refuge and about as close to home as most troops will get during their tour of duty.

Perhaps Mr. Braswell felt that if his children were ever sent to war, he would want a professional to be there to bring some comfort and entertainment to their lives. Perhaps he wanted to expand his professional skill beyond warehouse man. Perhaps he just felt it was his duty to volunteer to be a part of a difficult mission our nation had undertaken.

Regardless, in May Mr. Braswell joined more than 1,500 other AAFES associates who have volunteered in the last several years to serve in Iraq, and throughout the theater, from Djibouti to Kyrgyzstan, where Americans are engaged in the "global war on terrorism."

When a Blackhawk helicopter crashed during a night operation near Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq on Jan. 7, Mr. Braswell was one of the 12 Americans killed, one of four civilians. He wasn’t on a combat mission; he had not been trained to fight. He was simply catching a ride from Mosul to his duty station in Q-West. His job in a retail store seldom put him at great risk, but danger surrounded him and found him last month.

He was the first AAFES employee killed in Iraq.

Attention has recently been focused on the network news anchor who was severely injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq and on the young freelance journalist who has been taken hostage. Almost daily we are bombarded with the number of soldiers and marines who have been killed by the vicious insurgency. A visit to any military medical center in the U.S. hints at the thousands of GIs who have been severely wounded with life-altering injuries.

Overlooked, however, is information on American civilians in Iraq who are themselves targets of enemy action, victims of horrendous attacks, and who sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice. These are government civilians and contractors who just like the American GI are doing what their nation has asked them to do.

Because AAFES was for so many years in my Congressional district in Texas, the loss of one of their employees was a stark reminder that we as a country have asked so much of so many in Iraq. While the risk to our troops remains significantly higher, we must never forget that supporting them, serving them, and helping to build a better Iraq are civilians who are often in danger because of time and place and random acts; yet they persevere.

The employees of AAFES are remarkable examples of that. An aggressive AAFES team pre-positioned in Kuwait had operations in Iraq before Baghdad fell, providing snacks, beverages, tobacco and personal hygiene items to troops from the back of trucks driving the countryside shortly after the invasion.

AAFES had stores in Iraq before there were mess halls, latrines, showers or mail for the troops.

Today, the stores stock a wide variety of merchandise — from electronics, music and video to popular snack food, books and magazines and stationery. A steady stream of AAFES volunteers has manned these operations, expanding simple stores by contracting for vendor shops with Middle Eastern wares, bringing name brand fast food onto base camps, and dotting the landscape with call centers so troops can stay in touch with loved ones back home.

On their website,, the company outlines the level of support provided at every camp and highlights ways Americans can support the troops with gift certificates and telephone calling cars.

AAFES is a phenomenal company. This year, they celebrated their 110th anniversary of serving troops at outposts, originally on the frontier in the U.S. and eventually in every foreign war.

Former President Harry Truman, an artilleryman by training, was also a PX officer during World War I. Over time, dedicated civilians have replaced soldiers in running the stores, both in garrison and combat theater. Likewise, government civilians and contractors have taken on duties previously performed by the military in combat. There is sparse safe haven, even for civilians, in the incendiary Iraq. Yet civilians remain dedicated to providing quality of life for the troops and the goal of establishing democracy for the Iraqi people. They can rightly share in the progress that has been made; yet Mr. Braswell’s death, and that of the three other civilians who flew with him, remind us that they share in the danger and sacrifice as well.

Out nation is blessed to have the most courageous and committed military in the world. We cannot overlook the fact, however, that our fortune is expanded by those civilians who choose to work alongside the men and women in uniform, to help them fight their fights and shoulder the risk for the security of the rest of us. So when you say your prayers for our troops tonight, add an addendum for our extraordinary civilian force…for their strength and their safety.

Darren Braswell was in Iraq to support the troops in a PX. His job was focused on their quality of life. Although he was not an armed, war-hardened soldier, please don’t forget that his death is no less tragic than others we mourn. His contribution and courage, like that of so many other civilians, must not be overlooked. Support our troops and those civilians that accompany them into harms way.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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