Eloy man volunteers in Iraq for The Exchange

By Lindsey Gemme, Editor
Casa Grande Valley Newspaper, CA
July 12

July 4th this year meant a lot more than just fireworks for Eloy native Johnny Jimenez, as he spent the holiday rubbing elbows with U.S. soldiers.

Johnny Jimenez Jr. had volunteered the last six months over in Iraq as a civilian store manager run by the nonprofit Army & Air Force Exchange Service (the Exchange). The Exchange stores are located in every army installation abroad to provide soldiers with products they could get in any Wal-Mart or J.C. Penny back home.

Jimenez had been the military clothing sales manager for an Exchange store at Fort Stuart in Georgia for two years when he decided he would offer his services to do the same for an Exchange store in Iraq until next August. His father, Johnny Jimenez, had just retired from the service after 20 years serving in the military.

"When I got out of school, I did want to go that route, into the military," he told The Enterprise back in May while still volunteering overseas. "But my father told me, 'Don't do it because I did it. Make your own footsteps.' I did. I actually went the Exchange route instead, to support our troops."

"I told him, 'Don't go there chasing dollars [for college],'" his father, retired military man John Jimenez, told the Enterprise last week. "There's more to life than that, and putting your life in danger like that because you have your family and fiancé. But if you're going out there for upward mobility, then there's nothing wrong with that. I told him, 'Be sure you're going down there for a purpose.'"

The Exchange's motto over the last century has been to "Go Where the Soldiers Go." That's exactly what Jimenez did after he stepped onto Middle Eastern soil in Taji, a U.S. armed forces installation north of Baghdad, as well as 1500 other U.S. civilians working overseas. Jimenez estimates that over 3,000 soldiers from every branch - Marines, Air Force, Army, Navy, etc. - filter through the store every day.

About 50 employees, including local Iraqi nationals, help soldiers get actual retail products such as food (like chips, packaged meat and charcoal so they can actually barbeque), to popular media such as CDs, DVDs, and TVs.

"Even a snickers bar," Jimenez adds.

Jimenez works there as a sales and merchandise manager at the Taji main Exchange, and as the military clothing sales facility manager, overseeing the distribution of goods to 29 military clothing stores in Iraq and abroad. Iraqi nationals are also involved in running warehouses and work inside U.S. stores to help out with all the day-to-day operations, which run from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. All items for sale are the same price as back home, and are tax-free. Besides the Exchange stores for U.S. soldiers, 170 American food restaurant chains have made the effort to provide their services in the Middle East.

Despite having grown up in an armed forces family environment with prior overseas travel, this was the first time Jimenez says he came close to being in an actual combat zone. He was trained and prepared before being deployed, learning the same do's and don'ts soldiers learn before making the journey to the Middle East, and shared the same experiences any U.S. soldier would.

When I first got here, I don't know if I was scared - but I had to catch my breath.

"When I first got here, I don't know if I was scared - but I had to catch my breath," he commented regarding his civilian experience. "And you go through some of the same hardships that the actual soldiers do. We actually eat and bunk with them."

Sometimes keeping in touch with family could be difficult. Aside from the time difference, close to 12 hours in some areas of the U.S., action outside of the installation could sometimes affect communications. Their call centers or email capabilities could be compromised, "because you never know what's going to happen outside of these walls," he says.

But despite the hardships, Jimenez finds his work to be extremely rewarding.

"Actually giving a young solider, or even an older solider, an actual anniversary card so he can send it back home to his wife - or they're able to pick up a gift and mail it back home to their actual child - that's the most rewarding thing," he expressed.

There's one soldier in particular he remembers helping, who only had a day to look for a Princess poster to send to his daughter for her birthday; he was being shipped right back out again the following morning. After a few calls to several other Exchange stores, Jimenez was able to locate one, and assure the soldier it would be mailed as soon as possible.

"In a sense it's a little more expensive to ship things out from the Middle East," admits Lt. David Tomiyama of the Exchange Corporate Communications. "But the soldiers also buy more out there because there's not a whole lot of other places to buy from. You can't just walk outside the gates in any part of Iraq and go downtown and buy things."

The little comforts he was able to serve his fellow comrades made those hot days in the strange desert country all worth while for Jimenez. After all, he has children and a fiancé back home, too. He still has close family in Eloy, as well, including his uncles Frankie and Al Jimenez, and godfather Al Jimenez.

His deployment kept him away for Father's Day, and the seventh birthday of his son, Johnny III, on June 12. But he'd call as often as he could to bridge the gap between he and his family.

"I wait until Johnny gets home from school, and I think it'd be 2 a.m. here. I'm able to get to talk to him, have tell me about his day, how he's playing baseball now and when baseball ends, he's going to start swimming."

"They talk to each other on the internet through email," his fiancé, Sylvia Vasquez says. Both she and Johnny have known each other since they were 13-years-old, as both their fathers were in the military. They went to school in Germany together where their parents were stationed, where she later also served. They've been engaged three years, both with their own children.

"There's a webpage on the internet that they're able to color together on," she contined. "So they do that, and talk on the phone. That helps him a lot."

Jimenez graduated from Santa Cruz Valley Union High School in 1996, and started attending Barstow Community College in California while he worked his way up to management in the Exchange retail stores. He continues to work on his B.A. in business management while over in Iraq via internet classes. He will most likely earn his degree within the next year.

He returns to see his family in California this week for 10 days, including a visit to family in Eloy. Though his tour runs through to next August, Jimenez has expressed a desire to remain in Iraq "for as long as the soldiers are there."

"We were raised as military army brats," his 27-year-old sister in California, Renee, says. She also works for the military and government as a cubic applications computer analyst at Fort Irwin, helping to train and organize soldiers before they're deployed to Iraq. "For them to give so much to us being raised in the military, we just felt that we had to give back as well."

"He felt that it would help better himself and his career. I supported him whole-heartedly on it," Sylvia says. Though their engagement has extended for three years, she says that his volunteering in Iraq really doesn't get in the way of future wedding plans.

"It doesn't. Not at all. This is life. You have to take it as it comes. We'll plan accordingly."

"I'm very proud of him," she adds. "He's doing something great."

His parents Isabel and Frank Jimenez, both Eloy natives and SCVUHS grads, moved away from Eloy when Mr. Jimenez joined the army in 1980 but look forward to seeing their son, and family again during his 10-day leave.

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