IRAQ: Pennies vs. POGs

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Every penny counts, and few know that better than those of us working for a company that just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. So I gathered my pennies from the various drawers, wallets, sofa crevices and suitcases in my office and decided to use them to pick up a few necessities at the PX, the store in the International Zone that caters mainly to the military but also carries items difficult to find in the Iraqi markets that we frequent.

Imagine the disappointment to learn that pennies aren’t accepted there, or at any of the fast-food outlets or other shops set up on military bases across Iraq and the world. It turns out the Department of Defense decided many years ago that pennies are ‘too heavy and are not cost-effective to ship,’ explained Chris Ward, who rapidly responded to my e-mail asking why no pennies are accepted at on-base shopping centers.


Ward is a spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, better known as AAFES, which oversees military retail outlets across the world. The decision not to use pennies is not restricted to Iraq, Ward noted. He said Dallas-based AAFES, which grants concessions for everything from Subway sandwich outlets to exotic carpet stores, depends on the Department of Defense to ship the coins needed to keep its facilities running.

As an alternative, AAFES offers POGs, lightweight round discs worth 5, 10, and 25 cents (no penny POGs exist), and uses a ‘round-up, round-down’ policy for making change. If the last digit of the total purchase ends in three, four, six or seven, the total is rounded to the nearest nickel. If the last digit ends in one, two, eight or nine, the total is rounded to the nearest dime.

What this means is that any time you make a purchase and cannot come up with exact change, you run the risk of ending up with a pocket full of POGs, which are only good at military outlets. The Pizza Hut in the Baghdad International Zone will take them, but the Pizza Hut in Manhattan won’t.

POGs were introduced in 2001 and draw their name from a juice of passionfruit, orange, and guava called POG, whose bottlecaps were used in a game that became known as POGs. According to AAFES, the discs, which can be used in bases in the United States as well as overseas, have been popular with troops. Most years bring different POG series featuring various images on the discs. There are pictures of Black Hawk helicopters flying through the sky, Humvees rumbling through muddy water, soldiers on patrol in Iraq, and Richard Nixon in his Navy cap. There are even Elvis POGs.

Not everyone is happy with the POGs, as a letter in the military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper in January indicated. The writer, an Army captain deployed in Iraq, said troops should have the choice of using coins or POGs, and he complained that his change was being rounded down too often. ‘The explanation I was given was that AAFES rounds up just as much as it does down, but that means nothing to the guy who is always being rounded down,’ he wrote.

-- Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photo: Tina Susman / Los Angeles Times