Soldiers have always
sought the comforts of home while deployed in faraway
The modern exchange service has its roots in the storekeepers
and sutlers of the past.
The effect of closing post exchanges on the retention of Soldiers
has been the subject of an ongoing debate for several years.
Virtually all Active Army, Army National Guard, Army Reserve,
and retired personnel and their families use these facilities.
But how many of these customers know how the current exchange
system came to be?
During the Revolutionary War, each state required its militiamen
to furnish themselves with such equipment as flintlocks, bayonets,
swords, tomahawks, gun flints, knapsacks, canteens or wooden
bottles, and, often, a jackknife. Each brigade had a civilian
storekeeper authorized to sell personal wares. The most popular
items were liquid spirits, clay pipes, and tobacco.
During the Civil War, a sutler (a licensed merchant) was assigned
to each regiment of the Union Army. The sutlers stocked tobacco,
liquor (for the officers), rubber ponchos, and stoves for
Sibley tents, which Soldiers who had money could purchase.
The relationship between Soldiers and sutlers tended to be
contentious. Sutlers only conducted cash transactions because
Soldiers could die in the next battle or succumb to a fatal
disease. Since Soldiers were not paid for months, they sometimes
resorted to stealing from the sutler. Both officers and enlisted
personnel hated the sutler, who had a virtual monopoly and
often took full advantage of this position.
After the Civil War, Soldiers could purchase food or other
necessities from a post trader. In the 1870s, Soldiers ate
in mess halls, where the type of rations served remained virtually
the same over the next 30 years. If they had money or credit,
they could supplement their diets by purchasing food from
the post trader, who also sold tobacco and alcoholic beverages.
These post stores operated under a franchise from the War
Department. Other local merchants were not allowed to compete
with the post store. This provided the post trader the opportunity
to overcharge for everything since he had a monopoly. On pay
day, the post trader sat at the pay table, where he collected
the debts Soldiers had run up at his store. Both officers
and enlisted men considered the post trader a parasite from
whom there was no protection and saw a definite need for reform.
show sutlers’ operations
at the Civil War siege of Petersburg, Virginia,
in 1864: above, a sutler’s tent, and below
bomb-proof “fruit and oyster house.”(Photos
courtesy of the Library of Congress)
General Arthur MacArthur, the father of World
War II General Douglas MacArthur, opened a company “canteen” while
commanding Fort Selden, New Mexico, during the 1880s since
his post was considered too small for a post trader. This
facility provided a place for enlisted men to socialize outside
of the barracks. Profits generated from the canteen were used
to purchase special food for the mess hall, pool tables, books
and magazines, and seeds for the company vegetable garden.
MacArthur pushed to implement this program throughout the
entire Army. In 1895, the War Department issued General Order
Number 46, which directed post commanders to establish an
exchange at every post where practicable. These exchanges
were usually referred to as “canteens.”
In Plain Speaking, President Harry S. Truman recounted his
experiences as a regimental canteen officer during World War
I. He observed that almost none of the canteens generated
a profit. Many officers got into trouble handling money. However,
Truman successfully operated a regimental canteen for which
1,000 Soldiers provided a total of $2,000 in initial operating
capital; in 6 months, it repaid the original investment and
earned another $15,000 in dividends.
In 1921, the first centralization of unit exchanges to create
a post exchange took place at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
The post exchange was established to replace all regimental
and associated canteens on post.
operations served Soldiers in World War I (upper
World War II (upper right), the Korean War (middle
left), the Vietnam War (middle right), the Persian
(lower left), and Operation Iraqi Freedom
In 1939, the Army numbered approximately 190,000
Soldiers. It consisted of three divisions in the continental
United States staffed at half-strength (15,000 soldiers) and
two half-strength divisions located in Hawaii and the Philippines.
In 1940, the War Department brought approximately 1 million
National Guardsmen and inductees onto the Active Army’s
rolls and projected that the total armed forces would expand
to approximately 8 million personnel. The existing exchange
system would be unable to handle the demands of this expansion.
Reorganization resulted in the formation of the Army Exchange
Service (AES), which had the mission of providing service
to Soldiers in ever-expanding theaters in Europe and the Pacific
as well as the continental United States (CONUS). In 1942,
AES issued its first catalog, which generated approximately
80,000 orders from overseas troops.
Following World War II, AES remained to support occupation
forces overseas. Nearly 80 new exchanges were needed to support
the needs of Soldiers and their dependants. In 1950, AES was
again reorganized to form the Army and Air Force Exchange
Service (AAFES). In 1952, mobile exchanges began operating
in forward areas in Korea. Post and installation
commanders had operational control and responsibility for
exchanges that operated on Army and Air Force installations
in CONUS. The Vietnam Regional Exchange was established in
1965, and the mobile exchanges developed during the Korean
War evolved into tactical field exchanges (TFEs). The TFEs
were operated in areas with no AAFES operations. In 1970,
based on favorable results from a 1-year test, AAFES assumed
operational control and responsibility for all Army and Air
Force exchanges operating in CONUS.
Today, AAFES has a website and customers can order over the
Internet. In 2005, AAFES revenues were $8.7 billion, which
ranked it 83d among the world’s top 250 retailers. It
has more than 45,000 employees operating out of approximately
3,100 facilities in more than 30 countries. It serves nearly
12 million eligible customers, including active duty, retired,
and Reserve component personnel, military families, and some
Government employees. AAFES operates theaters, libraries,
convenience stores, and even gas stations. It also has partnered
with a variety of commercial food outlets, such as Taco Bell
AAFES has had an interesting evolution from civilian storekeepers
accompanying militiamen during the Revolutionary War to current
online web operations. However, the basic mission has remained
unchanged: Provide the men and women of the armed forces and
their families with service and merchandise they need to make
life more comfortable.
James T. Delisi works part time for a nonprofit organization.
He retired from Federal Civil Service as a management analyst
with the Army Forces Command. He also retired as a lieutenant
colonel in the Army Reserve. He has a B.A. degree in political
science from Duquesne University and an M.A. degree in business
management from Central Michigan University.