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Sergeant John G. Totzke, 22, from Lees Summit, Mo., is next in line as he waits to buy a CD and magazine at the grand opening of Camp Taqaddum's main exchange July 1, 2006. The exchange services here moved their store from a wooden building to a much larger structure to provide their customers with a more open area to shop that stays cooler than the previous location. Service members go to the PX to buy goods ranging from basic hygiene equipment such as toothpaste and razors to luxury items like the latest video game magazine or favorite soft drink; the latter category crucial to Marines fighting in the forefront of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Photo by Sgt. Enrique S. Diaz

Store's grand opening provides goods, boosts morale for service members in Iraq

3 Jul 2006 | Sgt. Enrique S. Diaz

People go to convenience stores to buy pampers and baby formula or stock up on chips and dip for the next day's big game. But in Iraq, military stores known as post exchanges, play a far more important role.

At this sprawling logistics base centered between the restive cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, service members now have a brand new post exchange - PX for short - where they can stock up on goods ranging from basic hygiene items to 'high-tech' equipment like laptop computers and DVD players.

Built in a former mess hall, the new store resembles the layout of any other department store in the U.S. - an aisle for clothing, another for food. Magazines and books are racked along a wall and electronics locked in glass cases.

With the grand opening and ribbon-cutting on July 1, service members here have a new getaway from the dangers, rigors and monotony they face while deployed.

For infantry Marines stationed at nearby Camp Habbaniyah - where there is no PX - this enormous white tent with air conditioning set at full blast is a welcomed addition, allowing them to stock up on goodies many at home might take for granted.

"A Snickers bar will take you a long way after a six-hour patrol in 130 degree weather," said Sgt. Adam L. Marshall, squad leader with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment's Company K.

Infantrymen regularly go 'outside the wire' for up to two weeks on operations without the comforts of garrison life while eating prepackaged food known as meals, ready-to-eat, said Marshall.

"A PX like this, when you're coming out of the field, is like Disneyland," said the 23-year-old Moore, Okla., native.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Feleasa E. Dunmeyer, the senior officer in charge of PX's throughout the Al Anbar province, including this newly opened one, was excited to finally get the new store open after months of preparation.

The planning for the project started in February, construction began in June, and it wasn't until two weeks prior to opening day that the exchange employees were given the green light to start stocking shelves with more than $100,000 in merchandise and move 50, 40-foot steel storage containers with more stock to sell in the new store.

The store was moved from a wooden building to this much larger, cooler structure to provide customers with a more open area to shop that allows a wider selection of goods to improve morale, said Dunmeyer. Frozen foods such as steaks, hamburgers and hotdogs will soon be stocked for units to buy for barbecues.

"This is like a mini Wal-Mart," said a Marine as he took his first steps inside and saw the long lines starting at the front of the store and continuing back nearly half the length of a football field.

All of the employees put in long hours to make the grand opening a reality, said Staff Sgt. Regina D. Pittam, assistant manager here.

"They came in on their off days and never complained," said Pittam, from Selma, Ala.

The hard work paid off when the ribbon was cut and the doors opened for Marines fresh from the field in their still-dirty uniforms.

"It's always good for (service members) to get things that remind them of home," said Dunmeyer, who was busy in all of the departments all day making sure the grand opening went smoothly.

Another benefit of a PX is that it gives service members one more place to go on their off time, which is important on an isolated forward operating base, said Dunmeyer, 41, from Hollywood, S.C.

"It's kind of like the highlight to their day outside of work," said Dunmeyer, who occasionally sees the same people frequent the store just to look around.

The PX plays such an important role in the Marines' quality of life that in the two days it was closed for moving, Dunmeyer received an unprecedented number of complaints from people aboard the base.

When it reopened, approximately 1,800 customers came and bought more than $125,000 worth of goods compared to the usual daily average of $42,380.

"Usually, we buy a lot of stuff when we come here," said Cpl. Justin A. Brecht, a 22-year-old fire team leader from Molalla, Ore.

Post exchanges like the one at Camp Taqaddum are part of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service system and can be found at thousands of locations throughout the world.

Such stores can range in size from tents and shacks with scarcely stocked shelves to brand new stores, like Camp Taqaddum's, with anything a service member can want, and then some, in a combat zone.

With the plans to increase the variety of merchandise they will stock for the Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen deployed to this part of Iraq, life should continue to get better for service members far from home.
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