JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas — Trainee Michael Bacos leaned over the jewelry counter at the Exchange here, looking for the perfect sparkling gift to send to his wife back home in Dothan, Alabama.
The 21-year-old Airman, in fourth week of Basic Military Training, is spending his first holiday away from his wife, Courtney.
“It’s rough,” Bacos said. “I’ve only been able to talk to her twice since I’ve been here.”
Bacos and about 2,800 other Basic Military Training recruits were treated to a morning of holiday cheer at the Lackland Exchange, which opened extra early Dec. 5 to give the Airmen, many of whom are spending their first holidays away from parents, sweethearts and friends, a chance to buy the perfect present to send back home.
The Lackland Exchange team worked for months to plan the event, which gave the recruits a brief respite from the rigors of basic training, said Alison Clement, Exchange sales and merchandise manager.
“This gives them a chance to cut loose and bond with their peers,” Clement said. “When you’re 19 and away from family for the first time at Christmas it’s hard.”
Army & Air Force Exchange Service senior leaders, including deputy director Mike Immler, chief operating officer; president Mike Howard, Western region senior vice president Dave Nelson; and Chief Master Sgt. Sean Applegate, the Exchange senior enlisted adviser; greeted the recruits throughout the Exchange.
“Welcome to the Exchange; we’re glad you’re here,” Immler told recruits outside the Exchange as they left buses and headed inside.
Besides shopping, Airmen were treated to photos with Santa, party-themed music from a DJ, and a dance contest.
“I love the atmosphere; this is awesome,” said Airman Katie Plickert, who’s in her fourth week of training.
While listening to music and watching her fellow recruits dance it out, Plickert, 18, from Cleveland, Ohio, browsed for Air Force souvenirs for her mom.
“It’s hard being away this time of year, but my family is supportive,” she said. “They’re proud of me, so that makes it easier.”
Once Plickert and the other recruits had completed their purchases, buses took the Airmen to the Basic Military Training Reception Center, where volunteers from the Exchange and Lackland organizations gift-wrapped the items for free. UPS, an Exchange concession, was on hand to ensure the gifts made it to their final destination.
Col. William Fischer, 737th Training Group commander, said recruits appreciate the event each year.
“For many, this might be first time they’re away from home with real jobs and their own money to buy gifts for family and friends,” Fischer said. “The young trainees really like it and it’s great that we have this partnership with AAFES.”