DONNA, Texas – When South Texas Exchange General Manager Eddie Devlin got word that a mobile field Exchange (MFE) was requested to serve troops supporting operations near the border in South Texas, he sent a message to Joint Base San Antonio associates seeking volunteers to run it.
The responses were immediate.
“We let them know that it was going to be primitive conditions, and nobody who volunteered backed out,” Devlin said. “That told me that we’ve got a great team, they love what they do and they’re doing it for the right reasons.”
Serving is in her heart
Among those that stepped up to the challenge was Julie McNeill, a stockroom foreman who has been with the Exchange for six years.
“My husband just retired from the military after serving 22 years, so it’s in my heart to support the troops and to give back to them,” McNeill said. “It means a lot to me to be out here. These guys have been eating meals ready to eat (MREs), and they’re ready to have that taste of home. We’re excited to be able to serve them.”
Coming full circle
Fort Sam Houston Main Store Manager Tammar Tracey, an Army Veteran with a lifelong connection to the Exchange, also jumped at the opportunity to serve the more than 1,000 troops deployed to South Texas.
“I’ve been around the Exchange all my life,” she said. “I shopped there as a dependent, as a military spouse and as a military member and now I work for them so it’s come full
circle for me. When I was active duty, away from home, it meant a lot to have that taste of home. The troops are so appreciative, which means a lot. It means we are doing our jobs.
“If they didn’t know who the Exchange was before coming here, they do now.”
Sleeping in tents, eating MREs
The MFE is located in Donna, Texas, just outside of McAllen, near the Mexico border and 4 ½ hours from San Antonio.
Joint Base San Antonio associates are operating the MFE in three-person teams for two-week shifts at a time, meaning that McNeill will spend the Thanksgiving holiday there. Just like the troops, they are sleeping in tents, eating MREs and the occasional hot meal from the tiny dining facility tent.
‘100 percent gratitude’
The fact that Exchange associates volunteer to serve the troops in such austere conditions is not lost on the troops like Capt. Lauren Blanton, 19th Engineer Battalion from Fort Knox, Ky., who is also the base camp mayor, can attest.
“We were on MREs for the first 10 days, so for the Soldiers to now have the ability to go get a candy bar or that bottle of Gatorade, it’s a real morale booster,” Blanton said. “We have 100 percent gratitude for the Exchange workers who came out here. Those volunteers that came out here with the Exchange are living in tents with no floors, no heating.
“The Soldiers see that and they have a huge heart for someone that is willing to do that.”