Last week, I decided to enroll in classes at Northern Virginia Community College. I did it mostly because I want to get more of a formal education in photography, particularly the use of my Nikon D90 and D3300 DSLR cameras. A small part of it was taking advantage of the $2300 a month housing allowance afforded to me as part of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. That’s free money and in this expensive National Capital Region, who am I to decline? My first assignment in the Photography 101 course was to take random pictures, using a natural frame. While using the D90 to accomplish this yesterday, thoughts of what happened in the Fall of 2009 came to mind. That brings me to this week’s moment in the Flashback Friday series: the AAFES boycott.
How I first came across this moment? In the Summer of 2009, while at home on a month-long leave from my Japan assignment, I did some traveling to parts of the country other than Birmingham and Atlanta. I visited Washington, DC for the first time and nearly died in doing so. I also made my New York debut that summer. The crown jewel of the summer was my trip to Chicago, where I was supposed to capture a photo of the famed Chicago skyline at night. My Sony CyberShot point-and-shoot camera failed miserably and I started looking seriously at DSLRs. About a month before my 25th birthday in October 2009, I ordered a Nikon D90 from the AAFES website. I actually paid the $1199 price out of pocket instead of putting it on my Military Star Card under the Exchange Credit Program. AAFES told me that it would ship store-to-store and I would have the camera by October 12…ahead of my birthday but more importantly, ahead of my November debut trip to Seoul. A whole 2 weeks after ordering the camera, I got an email from AAFES saying that the camera couldn’t be shipped overseas. What the f*** was my immediate reaction. It’s true…that’s all the words in the October 9, 2009 entry in Triumphs & Tribulations X. AAFES decided to wait until 2 weeks after I placed and paid for the order, 2 weeks before my birthday to tell me they weren’t gonna come through with my camera. I was pissed. After sleeping it off, I woke up the next morning and placed the order on Amazon. I had it sent to my father’s house in Birmingham. I then called him up and told him to mail the camera to me in Japan. After everything was put into motion, I wrote a scathing entry in Life: The Juan Thomas Story about how AAFES deceived me. I wrote how I felt disrespected and unappreciated as a customer. I wrote that I would boycott immediately, refusing to spend even a penny at AAFES…to include the mall, the restaurants, and the vendors.
What it meant to me then? To understand what it meant to me in October 2009, you have to understand the dynamics. I was a military servicemember stationed at Yokota Air Base outside of Tokyo, Japan…one of the most expensive places in the world. The U.S. dollar, which is what the Air Force paid me, was significantly weak against the Japanese yen. I had a significant advantage in shopping at the AAFES Base Exchange at the Yokota Community Center. Aside from the prices, I had an easy time finding things in my size and items that were tailored to Americans. When I declared the boycott, I was basically telling myself and the world that I would go the rest of the way in Japan shopping on the economy. For me, it was a decision I didn’t labor with at all. As emotional as I was, I was firm and people around me quickly realized I was serious. Even though I knew I wasn’t hurting their bottom line, I still stuck to my principles. A changing moment came when I won Airman of the Year in February 2010. Amongst all of the congratulatory gifts I received was a $500 gift certificate from AAFES. I returned the gift certificate in person, explaining why. This is when they first gathered what was occurring as one of their customer service specialists came across the blog post, offering an apology and asking what they could do to repair the relationship. I rebuffed them and continued the boycott. In the end, by the time I left Japan, I had spent the last 8 months of my assignment shopping exclusively on the economy. I estimate I spent upwards of an additional $2500 by doing so but I was determined to ensure AAFES didn’t get a penny from me.
What it means to me now? The AAFES boycott extended into my return to the United States in 2010. Over the course of my 2 years at Joint Base Andrews, I didn’t shop at the Base Exchange or utilize any of the restaurants or vendors. It was far easier to do that with me being Stateside because of all of the options “outside of the gate”. I didn’t end the AAFES boycott until July 2012, when I couldn’t overcome the lack of adequate goods off base in South Korea. Everything was absolutely cheaper outside of the gates of Osan Air Base and Yongsan Army Garrison but the quality was iffy at best. It was because of that I ended the boycott. Looking back on it, nearly 7 years later, I still have raw feelings about what AAFES did. When my military service ended 3 years ago, that was essentially supposed to be the end of my access to AAFES. But I landed the gig with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers so it was still in play for me. I didn’t do much shopping there though. After buying the graphite portrait of myself out of the Osan Base Exchange in April 2013, I’ve only been inside of an AAFES exchange or restaurant 5 times…all of them a diner in which I ate lunch with a colleague on the Gunter Annex. As far as I’m concerned, the boycott has pretty much unofficially picked back up.