By Air or By Sea: Keeping Thule Airmen Ready, Resilient at the Edge of the World
No roads lead to Greenland’s Thule Air Base—literally. Located 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Thule AB is the northernmost U.S. military installation. It’s only accessible by military plane most of the year or freight boat when the ice has melted enough to access the port.
At this installation, six Exchange associates ensure that 140 Airmen and 500 Danish and Greenlander contractors have everything they need—including a sense of community.
“We are a big part of their day-to-day lives,” Shift Manager Tim Barba said. “Those stationed here depend on the Exchange to provide a connection to the rest of the world.”
High stakes mission
The Exchange has operated at Thule since 1971 and supports the readiness and resiliency of the 12th Space Warning Squadron and the 21st Space Wing.
The 12 SWS operates a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System designed to detect and track intercontinental ballistic missiles. The 21st Space Wing uses a global network of sensors to provide missile warning, space surveillance and space control to North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and Air Force Space Command.
“We are here to provide more than just a means to get what Airmen need while serving in a remote location. The Thule Exchange has a huge morale function.”
-Shift Manager Bill Miele
The mission for these units has high stakes. Shift Manager Bill Miele recognizes the significance of the Exchange’s presence on the installation.
“We are here to provide more than just a means to get what Airmen need while serving in a remote location,” Miele said. “The Thule Exchange has a huge morale function. We take that responsibility to heart and go out of our way to support those stationed here.”
Fresh vegetables, too
Since there is no commissary, the Thule Exchange offers a selection of produce. Fresh vegetables from the Defense Logistics Agency and fresh milk are flown in weekly from Virginia.
The Exchange partners with the Defense Commissary Agency to deliver frozen meat monthly from Europe to Thule.
In addition to fresh foods, shoppers can find everything from disposable kitchenware and dry goods to meat snacks and home goods to a range of souvenirs—apparel, glassware, keychains and more—to commemorate their time in Greenland. A barber is on site Tuesday through Saturday.
Volunteering for Thule
Associates must volunteer to PCS to Thule, with most stints lasting one year. Extensions usually last only for up to one additional year. Despite this, at least two current Thule associates want to stay longer.
“I’ve already requested my second-year extension,” said Miele, who has served at Thule for six months. “There is so much to see and enjoy here. I’d like to stay for four more years, if they’ll let me, so I can continue to explore.”
For barber Deborah Bills, this assignment is her third to Thule, having served there from 1998- 2001 and again from 2002-2008. She has been back for about a year and has no plans to leave.
“My mission is to make people happy and feel good about themselves,” Bills said. “I have five more years until I retire, and I would like to stay at least that long.”
Being stationed at Thule is a one-of-a-kind experience, associates said.
“When it comes up on the list, put your name in,” Miele said. “It’s a remarkable place full of opportunity for adventure. Plus, it’s fun to tell the kids that Santa lives just down the street.”