Military family and benefits advocates said they plan to fight a new Pentagon proposal to gut the commissary program by slashing its funding.
The budget proposal would reduce the Defense Commissary Agency's annual budget from $1.4 billion annually to $400 million by 2017, forcing the agency to make major changes -- including possible widespread store closures, sources told Military.com. The plan will potentially be included in the Defense Department's 2015 budget request expected to be released next month.
"We're looking at them chipping away at what is essentially the bedrock of the pay and benefit compensation package," said Karen Golden, a deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). "Definitely, we will be fighting this."
DeCA operates 245 stores worldwide, including 67 stores overseas and 24 in rural stateside locations. A commissary closure prospective plan ordered by DoD late last year would look at closing 154 non-rural stateside stores.
DeCA officials declined to comment for this story. When lead Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby was asked about the commissary budget cuts, he said it would be too early to comment on the 2015 budget proposal and reiterated that all options remain on the table.
"No commissaries have been closed and I'm not going to get into provisions that may or may not be in the fiscal 2015 budget submission, which has clearly not been submitted yet, but [Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel] has been pretty clear that he doesn't want to close doors," Kirby said Thursday. "We have to be looking at all manner of pay and benefits as we move forward, and I wouldn't speculate with the commissary specifically."
The proposed commissary cut comes as the latest potential funding blow to military pay and benefits. As part of a larger budget deal late last year, lawmakers approved a plan to cut the annual cost of living allowance raise for military pensions by 1 percent annually -- a move critics said would result in the loss of thousands of dollars for military retirees. The reduction will save $6 billion over 10 years.
A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office also suggested barring working-age military retirees from the Tricare Prime health care system. Doing so would save an estimated $90 billion over 10 years.
Assuming the commissary program remains funded at $400 million from 2017 forward, slashing DeCA's budget would save the Defense Department $10 billion over 10 years.
Defense analysts in Washington, D.C., said the military is in a position where it has no choice but to trim the costs associated with personnel. The cost to services to pay for an individual servicemember in its end strength has gone up by 60 percent when accounting for inflation since 2001, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, which lobbies on behalf of military families, said closing the commissaries is a bigger blow to servicemembers than the retiree COLA cut because it impacts everyone, not just those who plan to make the military their career.
"From the time they enter the military until they're buried at Arlington cemetery, it's a lot of dollars lost and it's dollars lost every year," she said.
DeCA officials estimate that a family of four annually saves $4,400 by shopping at the commissary. For every taxpayer dollar spent on the commissary system, servicemembers get $2 of savings, according to official surveys.
Raezer said the other cuts, including the retirement COLA reduction and the 1 percent annual military pay raise for 2014, make the commissaries even more necessary.
"Do you want low morale? Do you want to put more of your junior families in a financial bind? Why do we want to take away something that's valued in a bigger way than the dollars you're putting into it?" Raezer said.
Harrison said the services don't have any other choice than to target the benefits packages as personnel costs continue to rise. He said the military has to choose between the benefits the servicemembers most value.
It's disputed whether the commissary falls into that category. A recent survey by the CSBA found that officers value the commissary more than enlisted servicemembers.
Harrison said he expected the veteran service organizations to lobby against any cuts to benefits to include the commissary. However, he said those lobbying efforts might come at the expense of future troops.
"Even if DoD was able to stay at its current budget, it can't afford as large of its force it once had. DoD can then only afford a fraction of the force it had. If they're not addressed, it's going to cause the end strength to shrink," Harrison said.
Golden said what is particularly worrisome about the new commissary cut proposal is the way in which the Pentagon planned it. Rather than wait for the congressionally mandated Military Compensation Reform and Modernization Committee to present its findings in May, or a DoD-ordered study from DeCA on closing the commissaries, officials are slipping major benefits cuts in now.
"We need to let the systems in place work to evaluate the programs," Golden said. "We haven't gotten those, yet they're putting these proposals out there."
A group of military spouses known as the Keep Your Promise Alliance who have made a vocal and public opposition to the retirement COLA cuts said the commissary budget cut plan represents just another situation in which the needs and wishes of military families are being ignored.
"The Alliance was created because military families don't feel like they have a voice," said Lori Volkman, a Navy Reserve spouse and spokesperson for the group. "When decisions about them are made without their input, it only reinforces that perception. The commissary situation is just another example."
-- Military.com Managing Editor of News Michael Hoffman contributed to this report.