The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) has provided merchandise and services to U.S. military personnel and their families worldwide for more than 100 years. On July 25, 1895, General Order No. 46 set the standard for the concept and mission of the AAFES.
Historically, when armies traveled, merchants and traders were never far behind. During the War of Independence, vagabond traders called sutlers followed armies and sold provisions to the soldiers. The same was true of the Civil War and other U.S. conflicts.
The trading continued with little direction from military leaders, until the War Department gave post commanders the authority to establish post exchanges to supply soldiers with articles that were not routinely supplied by the government. It was left to the commanders to decide how to spend exchange earnings. Then the department opened self-supporting, non-profit stores comprising a cross between a general store and a social club. The typical exchange staff consisted of several clerks and a saloon keeper. Over the years, it sold such items as tea, coffee, tobacco, beer, soup, cooked canned meats, and sandwiches.
The system remained unchanged until 1941 when the War Department established the Army Exchange Service (AES) to provide worldwide guidance to individual exchange operations.
During World War II, supplying exchanges worldwide became an immediate challenge as the number of soldiers continually increased. Rationing was sometimes imposed on popular items. Post Exchange (PX) operations spread across the globe sparsely at first, but soon became a household word to their patrons. The AES mission became "Serving those who serve" as the military operations continued to expand in Europe and the Pacific.
Recreation was added to boost the morale of war-weary enlisted men and women. Thus the army’s first canteen was opened at Vancouver Barracks in the Pacific Northwest. The canteen offered billiards, cards and other games, writing paper, and light fare. The exchange system expanded; PXs were developed not only on military posts, but in combat zones as well.
Soldiers in combat zones found the PX to be a bit of sanity where they could purchase items to make life a little more comfortable. Upgrading soon became necessary as requests for other items were made. The army ultimately found it necessary to contract out the PXs, thus expanding products and services to servicemen and -women.
Despite many dangers, contracted employees convoyed merchandise to remote outposts. They did that when an outpost had no PX. They sold merchandise off their truck tailgates and from the back of aircraft so the troops could purchase such items as socks, underwear and toiletries. "We go where you go" took on a whole new meaning for the contracted employees.
Those employees committed themselves to take care of the soldiers, even at high risk, to bring to them the services they were accustomed to at home. Gaining insight into what the soldier goes through during wartime, they filled a need and gained a sense of accomplishment. AES was known as the "store that goes to war."
In war-ravaged Europe there was a necessary increase in AES operations. Nearly 80 new exchanges were required to meet the needs of soldiers and their dependents. The AES represented a second family because the exchange personnel were friendly and the items in the PX reminded them of home. As the war ended in Europe, the AES remained abroad, providing continual support for the occupational forces to make their lives more comfortable.
Following World War II, the burden of planning for the exchange services and facilities depended upon the postwar area. For instance, in war-torn Germany the AES would have to replace some civilian facilities in addition to supplementing them. Allowing dependents to arrive increased the services needed and the variety of merchandise to be extended. Germany was not able to provide the needed items and the AES would then have to obtain them from other sources.
The Air Force became a separate service in 1948. Accordingly, the AES took on the new title, Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES). It is not run by investors, but strictly by the Army and Air Force branches. It is a federal organization operating exclusively from the funds generated by sales. Its shareholders are the enlisted men and women of the Army and Air Force. It continues to be a service organization, designed to provide quality merchandise and generate funds for "morale, welfare and recreational" purposes (MWR).
Almost entirely self-supporting, the AAFES operates more than 10,000 activities, including: retail stores, bookstores, food facilities, florists, gas stations, auto repair, barber and beauty shops, military clothing stores, movie theaters, video rentals and catalog services. The AAFES buys goods and supplies from 13,000 firms of which 94 percent are small businesses.
Now in their second century of service, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service is dedicated to improving the quality of life for soldiers, airmen and their respective families. The AAFES headquarters is in Dallas, Texas.