In Change, Fitness Gear OK’d for Wear at Military Commissaries, Exchanges

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Patrons of the Warrior Fitness Center exercise on treadmills June 17, 2013, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (Matthew Lancaster/Air Force)
Patrons of the Warrior Fitness Center exercise on treadmills June 17, 2013, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (Matthew Lancaster/Air Force)

It just got a lot easier for troops and families to hit the commissary or exchange after the gym or their child's soccer game.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper sent a memo to top military leaders on Monday immediately authorizing physical fitness attire at commissaries and military exchanges worldwide. The move puts an end to the longstanding dress codes barring shoppers from entering the stores in athletic shorts and spandex-style gym attire.

The rules apply not only to active-duty service members, but millions of military spouses, children and retirees authorized to shop on base.

"Effective immediately, physical fitness attire is authorized for wear by patrons at commissaries and military exchanges (and their annexes) on all [Defense Department] installations, provided the attire is clean, serviceable and in good condition, and appropriately modest," Esper wrote in a brief memo dated Monday, which surfaced on multiple social media sites.

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Officials with the Navy Exchange Service and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service confirmed they received the memo on Monday, referring all questions about its content to the Pentagon.

John Supple, a Defense Department spokesman, said Esper made the change based on feedback he got from troops. 

“This was a concern that came to the secretary’s attention during his visits to military service members around the world that he wanted to address,” Supple said. 

Service secretaries are still authorized to make exceptions to Esper's policy "based on mission requirements and the need to maintain good order and discipline," he wrote.

"Thank you for your continued efforts to ensure we maintain a safe and healthy environment on our installations," Esper added.

Base commanders typically set dress attire rules for commissaries and exchanges. At Marine Corps Base Hawaii, for example, civilians can wear "appropriate athletic wear," which base officials say is non-military issued physical training clothing that's not provocative or altered to be too revealing.

But that wasn't always the case.

In 2014, a 7-year-old and his mom were turned away from the commissary at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, because the boy was wearing workout clothes. A Marine outside the commissary turned them away, Laura Carothers, a Navy wife, told Navy Times.

"I didn't realize [the rules] applied to play clothes," she told the paper. Her son was wearing athletic shorts and a T-shirt when they were denied entry.

The incident stuck with the little boy, who later told his mom when they were headed to the commissary for groceries, "I'm not dressed right, Mommy. I can't go," according to Navy Times.

Esper's new rules would not only apply to kids and spouses entering the stores, but also to troops in PT gear. They're typically not allowed to shop in even their military-issued athletic gear, including at locations where civilians can enter the stores in fitness gear.

Rules governing wear and appearance of uniforms and civilian attire at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for example, explicitly state that service members are not authorized to visit any on- or off-post establishment in PT gear.

When copies of Esper's memo were shared on social media, users joked that senior-enlisted leaders were likely fainting over the change in commissary and exchange dress codes.

"This is going to cause some [command sergeant major] aneurisms [sic]," one person wrote.

Others were surprised to see the issue reach Esper's desk.

"Can't believe it took the [defense secretary] to implement something as small as that," another commenter wrote.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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