MilFams Keep Eye on Commissary Closure Plan

fort lee commissary

Commissaries have been Marjean Burkhart's grocery store of choice for more than 25 years.

The military spouse has been so accustomed to shopping on base that she hasn't given much thought to what life might be like if the discounted grocery stores close.

Burkhart and others will to have find an alternative, though, if the Pentagon decides to close all stateside commissaries to trim the defense budget.

In late November, news spread that U.S. commissaries -- like the ones at Keesler Air Force Base and the Naval Construction Battalion Center -- were among a number of items the Pentagon asked to be considered for cuts. Since then, both the Defense Commissary Agency and the department have been rather tight-lipped on the matter, emphasizing that all options are on the table and no decisions have been made.

"The Secretary of Defense (Chuck Hagel) has made it clear on numerous occasions that all cost-cutting efforts need to be on the table in order for the Department of Defense to meet the spending caps associated with the 2011 Budget Control Act," the Defense Commissary Agency said in a statement. "At this time, no final decisions have been made on the Department of Defense's fiscal year 2015 budget submission. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to discuss any specific budget decisions."

The fact that commissaries are even in the conversation worries many affiliated with the military, who call their ability to shop at the stores an "earned benefit of serving the country."

"We have heard lots of things bantered about and believe the system is working the way it is and don't understand why time and time again the system seems to be under attack," said Candace Wheeler, spokesperson for The Coalition to Save Our Military Shopping Benefits. "We understand these are tough times for the DoD. We do get that. But, we think a lot of that is because of the sequestration and declining budgets and believe this is not a program that should be under attack."

Big savings

Commissaries rely on taxpayer subsidies of $1.4 billion annually to operate 247 stores around the world, 178 of them stateside.

Active-duty personnel, retirees, National Guard, reserves and their family members are able to shop at commissaries with a mandated 5-percent surcharge to help offset operating costs. Even with the surcharge, shoppers save around 30 percent compared to other stores.

The Commissary Agency says those savings can add up to as much as $4,500 a year for a family of four (and more than $1,500 for a single servicemember).

A spokesman at Keesler said their commissary had about $38 million in sales in 2012.

In addition to those who live on base, many military people consider commissary locations when they look for a place to retire.

Sherrill Smith retired to Saucier 22 years ago and shops at the Seabee Base commissary every Sunday after church.

"Unless it's something the commissary doesn't have, I never buy anything off base," he said Thursday. "I'm 75 years old and I enjoy the hell out of the benefits that we have here in the form of the Exchange and the Commissary. My feeling is I don't want to see it eroded."

Thursday, the Seabee Base Commissary was packed at noon as active military members, retirees and spouses came and went. Some bought just enough for lunch. Others filled their carts.

"Basically, every time I get a paycheck I go shopping there. It's definitely convenient for people who live on base and need quick groceries," BUCN Jackie Schwacke said. "It's packed every day it's open. I shop there because of its convenience, price and people are always friendly. Always."

Navy Marine Corps Relief Society Gulfport Director Alice Huffman said commissaries have a deeper importance to base life than just discounted veggies and cereals.

"It's also a social place for people. The commissary is a place that you can sometimes plan to see the same people shopping," she said prior to doing her own shopping Thursday. "So there's a financial impact and it might also break apart the social side and the community side of the military. The idea that this is where they're going to make the cuts in the Department of Defense budget is a little ludicrous to me and many other people.

"There's certainly other places we can be looking."

Delegation agrees

Politicians representing the Mississippi Gulf Coast tend to agree, expressing the need to leave U.S. commissaries off the chopping block.

"I disagree with the notion that closing base commissaries or raising charges to servicemembers should be used to cut the budget of the Department of Defense," U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran said. "The overall costs of national defense spending should be very carefully reviewed but punishing those who have served in the military and who may be called upon to risk their lives for our freedom and security is not justified."

Both U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker echoed Cochran, saying more suitable cuts should be found elsewhere.

There have been no definite decisions made regarding the commissaries just yet, leading Lt. Col. Phyllis Luttman to caution folks not to get too worked up just yet.

"There's been that possibility for the last five or seven years. It's been talked about so it's not a new subject that has been brought up," she said. "These are all hypothetical right now. It's difficult to be projecting and worry about something that's not really a story. We all know that everything is on the table."

Added Smith: "The fact is, when something like that is brought up, you never know at what point in time Congress might say 'OK, I'm going to throw in the rag and let you do it.' That's what you don't want to have."

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