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AAFES employee back on base after long deployment

Back home at Tinker, Exchange acting sales area manager Maria Hood discusses merchandise displays with an Exchange associate.  Ms. Hood spent more than three years deployed with the Exchange, moving from an associate to a manager under harsh conditions that helped her grow personally and professionally. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

Back home at Tinker, Exchange acting sales area manager Maria Hood discusses merchandise displays with an Exchange associate. Ms. Hood spent more than three years deployed with the Exchange, moving from an associate to a manager under harsh conditions that helped her grow personally and professionally. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- In September 2004 Maria Hood packed her bags, boarded an airplane with only $300 to her name and began a move to Oklahoma.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Ms. Hood decided she wanted to come to the United States; she wanted more out of life.

Two months after her arrival, she applied for a job on Tinker Air Force Base and accepted a position as an Army and Air Force Exchange Service employee. When she first started, Ms. Hood would walk to work each day because she didn't own a vehicle. It was early November and the weather was beginning to turn harsh and cold. She continued to walk to work for two months before she began riding the bus.

She worked for several years as a clerk and store associate at the Base Exchange but she wanted to excel even more in her career as an American citizen.

"I wanted to grow into this company. There were a lot of ways for me to move up, but I felt like it wasn't fast enough for me," Ms. Hood said.

So she signed up for deployment, which could allow her to gain experience and knowledge and possibly even move her up the professional ladder. She said deployment meant that employees were automatically trained for manager positions. It was the best way to give her the "platform to train and learn" that she needed.

In June 2007 Ms. Hood was sent on her first deployment to Kuwait. While there, she was assigned to be a shift manager where her primary duty was providing customer service.
"At first I didn't think I could make it; it was too hot," Ms. Hood said. "In June when I first got there and we landed at midnight, it was 104 degrees. And the wind was blowing in my face; we were carrying all of our duffle bags and gear. It was a new country and I didn't know anybody."

After sticking out her six-month deployment, Ms. Hood came back to the U.S. for rest and relaxation and she was determined not to go back. But she didn't anticipate her near future and fate. Her six-month deployment soon turned into more than three years.
"When I came back they said, 'We are moving you. In 2008 you're going to Iraq,'" she said.

Not really sure what to think, Ms. Hood reluctantly accepted the assignment. She was stationed in Iraq for the remainder of her deployment as an operations manager.

"So I learned that job and I loved it. I kept (professionally) growing and growing from then on," she said.

While in Iraq Ms. Hood became more skilled in the operations manager position and she had the opportunity to lead the transition of an exchange store to be open 24 hours.

Ms. Hood said there were stores in every camp. The AAFES employees lived under the same conditions as the military troops, but they were not allowed to go outside of the gate. She said they worked long hours, and it was common to work 12 to 15 weeks straight without a day off. She would often go to work at 7 a.m. each day and not return to her living quarters until midnight.

"Our day off would be to work only eight hours that day," Ms. Hood said.

However, Ms. Hood was not only able to grow in her job, but she said she grew as a person, too, as she experienced and witnessed many life-changing events. Only a month after she had been stationed in Iraq, her camp was hit by a mortar.

"I was already anxious about going to Iraq, but when that happened it became real. It's like, this bomb isn't going to know that I'm a civilian, it's going to hit me," she said.

After that she thought about leaving because she was nervous about what was happening around her on a daily basis. But soon after the bomb exploded they discovered it had hit a fellow store employee. Ms. Hood knew she had to step up and support the rest of the employees. She had to stay.

"That experience I will never forget because I was responsible for everybody in that store," Ms. Hood said. "But at that time we went down from 50 employees to five because they got scared. Everybody was like zombies walking around. Every time there was a loud bang we were all shaky."

Ms. Hood soon learned another aspect of being a leader and manager. She knew something had to be done to lift the spirits of her employees, so she stepped up and took the role of a consoler.

"If I had to console people, then I had to believe it myself, otherwise I wouldn't be effective."

Ms. Hood said she knew conditions were going to be harsh and adverse in Iraq, but there was no way she could prepare herself for some of the events she actually went through. It was because of these conditions though that she continued to stay there for the lengthy deployment.

"I guess when you are in that situation you want to push through it," Ms. Hood said. "You have to or you'll go crazy. We can leave whenever we want, but strangely enough, survival mode kicks in."

She said by the end of her deployment her camp was getting bombed about three times a day, and they all just had to adjust to the situation. She said many people became close because all they could do was cling to one another.

"We became family instinctively," she said. "These people might be the person that would stand between life and death for you."

In the exchange store, people would visit each day just so they could get out and have a reason to see a familiar face.

"Even to buy a stick of gum, people will go in there and spend 30 minutes talking to you to keep their sanity," she said.

Ms. Hood is not married and does not have children, which is why she was able to stay in Iraq for such a long period of time. However, she was raised within a military family. Her father was a retired navy veteran.

"So I was around the exchange most of my childhood," she said.

Ms. Hood returned from deployment in December 2010. Her time in Iraq however, changed her perspective on life. She said now the little things don't bother her as much, and she truly missed the simple pleasures the U.S. offers that most people often take for granted. Like just sitting on a couch, walking on actual pavement instead of dirt, being comfortable with the weather, driving a car or going to the movies.

But the first thing Ms. Hood did when she returned home was cook. She said she enjoyed going to the grocery store and being able to pick out fresh produce.
Before she deployed, Ms. Hood was working two jobs, which included the Exchange. When she returned with more experience and knowledge, she was offered a full-time position as a manager at the Exchange.

"This team is unbelievable. They were just ready to see what I can do," she said. "It feels so right and it feels so good to be at the top of your game. I have the training and the background, and now I have the drive and purpose to push forward and be No. 1."

Rosalina Johnson, office manager for the AAFES general manager , has seen Maria go from a cashier to the sales area manager that she is today. Ms. Johnson said Ms. Hood's work experience is directly related to her deployment because Ms. Hood had to learn every aspect of the job.

"Being deployed, (Maria) had to work as an associate, cashier, customer service, receiver/warehouse manager, store manager. She did it all. In order to be a manager, you have to learn all that and more!" Ms. Johnson said. "Being deployed, Maria's goal was to serve the best customers in the world effectively, and her other goal was to become manager. What better experience to have to serve our airmen and soldiers in the frontlines."

Now back to her job and a new chapter in life, Ms. Hood said her deployment experience was something she could never trade for anything else and it was all worth it.

"It gave me more options; it highlighted my strengths and developed my weaknesses," Ms. Hood said. "I really got to learn more about myself. It's something I will never forget for the rest of my life."