About the time you're celebrating the Fourth of July, Lena Haddix will be en route to Iraq. She's a 73-year-old great-grandmother who recently finished a six-month deployment to Kuwait and then signed up for a six-month deployment to Baghdad.
Haddix is a store manager for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service and volunteered to work overseas because she wants to support the youngsters in the military.
"I'm doing it for our troops," Haddix said in a telephone interview from her home in Lawton, Okla.
"I was a little late getting started because I raised a family first. But now I can do something for the troops. . . . If you could just see the expression on their faces when I talk to them. Anything you can do for them, they appreciate it more than they do here in the States."
Haddix works for the retail arm of the Defense Department and is part of a network of volunteers who go overseas to bring movies, music, sodas and goodies to the troops. Post exchange personnel operate out of trucks and tents and, when conditions permit, set up PXs in buildings.
On most days, the exchange service has about 450 civilians operating 54 stores, 65 phone centers and more than 100 fast-food eateries throughout Afghanistan, Iraq, Qatar, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kuwait.
About two-thirds of the revenue generated by exchanges goes to fund military morale, welfare and recreation programs.
Haddix has been with the exchange service for 30 years, working in Virginia, Texas, Ohio, California, the Panama Canal Zone and Oklahoma. Her home base is Fort Sill, near Lawton.
She did not tell her children that she had volunteered for duty at Camp Doha, Kuwait, until her paperwork was in order. "They were kind of upset at the start, but they support me and are behind me," she said.
Haddix is the mother of five children, ranging in age from 41 to 52. She has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She took a 10-day vacation before starting her hitch in Iraq so that she could be home for a grandson's 21st birthday.
Because of the way she timed her break, she will be flying to Kuwait on the Fourth and arriving in Baghdad on July 5 for her assignment at Camp Liberty, which was damaged during a recent mortar attack.
Yes, she said, it is "sometimes" dangerous in combat zones, but the military and her co-workers at the PX "take good care of me. . . . I just don't feel the fear, and I feel like I am of help to them when I am there."
In Kuwait, the post exchange rang up $100,000 to $150,000 in sales each day, she said. She supervised about 150 employees, mostly foreign nationals working on contract for the exchange service.
As the store manager, "I'm there at 7:30 every morning to open and there at 8:30 at night to close. I'd take one hour for lunch and one hour for dinner, and the rest of the time, I am on the floor with the troops."
She describes herself as a "second mom" to the young people who meet her while shopping, she said. "One MP came in and said, 'We talk about you down at the MP station, and we all come up here just to get to talk to you, and we give thanks that God sent you to us.' "
Haddix does not see her assignments as hardship duty, although she acknowledged that she tried to stay out of the Kuwaiti heat, which was 125 degrees when she left for her vacation in Lawton.
"The employees always see that I have the cool spot in the store," she quipped. Still, she added, "they don't treat me like I'm old; they tell me I'm one of them."
She said retirement is not in the cards for her, at least not now. "I'm not old enough to give up and set down," she said.
"I just thank God that I am in good health and I can do this," Haddix said. "I am really blessed."