By Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
Multi-National Division - Center
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq – What would football parties and get-togethers be like without a slice of pizza?
Fortunately, most deployed Soldiers don't have to face that dilemma as military bases in Iraq continue to add brand-name restaurants from home.
This is thanks in part by the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, which helps bring together the stores that fulfill service members' needs – whether in the states or overseas.
"It always goes back to a morale factor," said Roland Knight, the senior AAFES food business manager for military bases in Iraq. "The Soldier having a little taste of home out here in the environment we're working under ... Yeah they have a [dining facility], but [now] they have a piece of Main Street U.S.A. [as well]."
With the help of AAFES, Soldiers can enjoy just about every taste of home they might crave, from coffee with a Cinnabon to a burger fit for a king. The restaurants give Soldiers additional options and a break from the crowded chow halls.
"It [gives you] a smaller place where you don't have to sit with 500 people in a dining facility," said Sgt. Brandon Bresson, of Minneota, Minn., a paralegal for 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment.
For some Soldiers, however, health is another motivator, more so than selection.
"That's why I come here," said Sgt. 1st Class Donald Matthews, of Tampa, Fla., after grabbing a toasted turkey on honey oat at Subway. He is an air traffic controller at the air operations cell for 10th Mountain Division. "It gives you a break from the grease. I try to stay healthy and lift weights."
Given that most of these restaurants are fast-food places, they also make it easier on Soldiers by allowing them to grab food on the go.
"It beats sitting on the back of my porch trying to shoot my dinner," said Staff Sgt. Robert Larson, who is actually from Edison, N.J., but was teasing a fellow Soldier who has done just that.
Larson's favorite place is North End Pizza, found on Liberty Base. His favorite toppings are chicken and pineapple, though those are yet to be added to the menu here. He typically grabs a few pizzas with some colleagues from the judge advocate general section and other 10th Mountain Division Soldiers once or twice a month. Though, if he could pick a restaurant to add to Camp Victory, he would choose Olive Garden.
In fact, all of the restaurants on military installations are chosen by the garrison command at the request of its Soldiers.
The process to open a new restaurant takes anywhere between three and six months. The mayor cell from a requesting base will typically help out in bringing the new eatery. They propose it to AAFES, while also submitting to the military chain of command for approval.
"AAFES is just the executing agent because we're responsible for the franchise," said Knight, who has been with the company for 20 years. "The biggest factor is determined ... by garrison, the mayor cell (and) what they want to have. When they figure that out, and it's pushed through the approval process ... then we can build a unit to send to that location."
The majority of the store units, which are built like trailers, come from Kuwait, though some are fabricated by local companies here in Iraq. It's up to the franchise owner to decide. Then, it's shipped into country as a complete unit. From there, equipment is mostly purchased from the U.S.
"My job being the senior food manager, the support for all the operations within theater is handled by AAFES," said Knight, who has been working in Iraq going on eight months. "They are governed to the same standards, the same rules and regulations as any other operation on any other military installation."
Once opened, shop inspections are conducted quarterly, and food inspections are done monthly. From that point, the stores remain in collaboration with the mayor cells, the commanding unit on post and AAFES for any further assistance or support.
Dividends from these restaurants go back into the Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs on base. This gives benefits right back to the military members purchasing food at the restaurants. The percentage allocated to MWR is decided based on a store's income and the number of troops on post.
"Your MWR programs are benefitted directly from every operation that we have in theater," Knight said.
For Knight, that's what makes the job worthwhile: helping the Soldiers.
"If you can imagine being a forward operating base with nothing else out there, and all of a sudden, here comes a Pizza Hut and a Subway; the reaction we got from the Soldiers on the ground ... It's self rewarding. To be able to see that is priceless. You can't replace the look on a Soldier because he has a slice of pizza or Subway out here in theater."
This work, Soldiers don't have to 'bite the dust' with restaurants in desert, by MSG Michel Sauret, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.