Fort Belvoir Exchange Helps Welcome Afghan Guests to U.S.
As Operation Allies Welcome (OAW) enters its second phase, the Exchange is once again serving at-risk Afghans who supported the U.S. mission as they make their way to new homes in the U.S.
A small Exchange, offering snacks, chips, energy drinks, candy and more, has been set up at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Virginia, where guests and their families are staying as they complete the final steps necessary for resettlement.
Associates from the Fort Belvoir Exchange, about an hour from Leesburg, installed shelving, brought in merchandise and set up a “store in a box,” which contains all IT equipment necessary to process sales from a remote location. The canteen, as the store is known, operates out of a 15-by-15 conference room. South Post Express Store Manager Mary Ann Skidmore and Sales Area Manager Ryan Rodeback are running the store, with Operations Manager Jose Torres filling in as necessary.
Col. Brian Biggs, Air Force Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer, Air Forces Northern National Security Emergency Preparedness Directorate, First Air Force, assists OAW Phase 2 operations at the conference center. He said the Exchange’s operation has been “enthusiastically received” by the guests.
“The word is getting out, and lines are forming prior to opening each day,” Biggs said. “Ryan, Mary Ann and Jose have been absolute rock stars. This mission and the morale of the guests and staff have been greatly impacted by your assistance and dedication. Thank you.”
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Osby, the Exchange’s senior enlisted advisor, visited the canteen March 23 during a trip to Washington-area Exchanges.
“The Belvoir Exchange team’s outstanding efforts here are a great example of the unique, mission-essential support that only the Exchange can provide,” Osby said. “The Exchange is honored to help Col. Biggs and his team make these guests feel as welcome and at home as possible.”
The site’s first 300 guests, coming from countries such as Kosovo and the United Arab Emirates, arrived in Leesburg on March 8. The site, overseen by a Unified Coordination Group led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and including more than 600 interagency, nonprofit and private-sector staff, is expected to host an average daily population of up to 1,000 adults and children.
“There’s definitely a sense of appreciation [from the guests in Leesburg],” said Fort Belvoir Exchange General Manager Alex Mamaril. “Even though we offer a limited assortment, it gives them a taste of the kinds of snacks and beverages they’ll be able to find here in the U.S.”
In 2021, the Exchange helped U.S. military installations worldwide host more than 76,000 Afghan guests during Operation Allies Welcome’s first phase. Exchanges served Afghan guests from mobile field Exchanges, tent stores and other temporary facilities in addition to serving U.S. and NATO troops deployed for OAW at certain locations.
While there is currently no estimate for how long the mission will last, Mamaril said his team will remain on site as long as the Exchange’s support is needed.
“It’s tough for families resettling in a new country, so we want our guests to feel welcome as they start their new lives here,” Mamaril said. “It’s truly humbling to be a part of such an important and impactful effort for these families.”