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Military Commissaries

Commissary - Norfolk 2007
Commissary - Norfolk 2007
When Mary and I married we went immediately (no honeymoon) to my first Duty Station, MCRD San Diego. We had so little money we had to borrow to pay the trucker to deliver our wedding presents from Wisconsin.  One of the first lessons Mary was taught by the other Dental Officer wives was how to save money by shopping at the Commissary, the best of which was a ferry ride to Coronado.  On the first trip she was admonished to continue shopping since they only made the trip once every two weeks.  She had to explain that she had spent her budget and had no more to spend until the next payday.

How she managed to not only put food on the table but develop into a gourmet cook remains a mystery.  She continues to shop at Commissaries to this day.
The idea of a commissary in the United States started as early as 1825 and by 1867 both Officers and Enlisted could purchase groceries for themselves and their families at cost.  The operation was in response to two factors, first from earliest times there were always opportunistic civilian merchants who took advantage of the military stationed in remote areas and second, the variances and vagaries of the cost of groceries in areas where the military was stationed, with no choice in the matter.
In 1899 the first foreign shore commissary was opened I the Philippines, the country were Mary and I had our first contact with an overseas commissary.  The different in off-shore operation was essentially a rationing of the goods available.  While a commissary in a large base in CONUS may stock over 11,000 items, we were restricted to about a tenth of that when we were there in 1963 and not too much more when we returned in 1983.  I do remember on our first tour that one of the items at Christmas time were Christmas trees, a welcome connection to families left at home.
DeCA LogoIn 1990 Congress established the Defense Commissary Agency, which combined the commissary operation of the Joint Services and set a 5% surcharge to assist in maintaining the infrastructure of the operation.  It is important to note that not then, not before and not until recently was any thought given to making the operation self-supporting, in contrast to the Exchange system.  It is estimated that the commissary privilege saves a family of four, $4,000 a year. A savings that allows many to survive on a poverty-level salary.  Mary tells me that it is a common sight to see military wives using food stamps for their purchases.
So I was surprised and hugely disappointed to hear that one of the items in the discussion of how to trim the DoD budget, now that some choice can be made in savings rather than the across-the-board cuts of the Sequester, was to triple the surcharge, close several commissaries, or possible eliminate the system, forcing military families on to the economy!
This is not only greatly short-sighted and a huge betrayal of trust, it is also one more indication that Congress does not understand the motivation that supports an all-volunteer force.  Of course why should that be a surprise when we now have less than 15% of our politicians who have ever served: and that includes many who were drafted.
I am hopeful that when the members of Congress return from their holiday they may reflect of the ludic racy of making a change in a policy set when many of their states were wilderness being protected by the soldiers-in-arms with those who they are now disenfranchising of promised and expected life-style elements.
Recently Bill Cosby was interviewed on NPR and mentioned how war could be changed, in his characteristic, humorous, but thoughtful way.  In my next Post I’ll take off from his reflections with some of my own thoughts and observations.  It should be fun.  Please come join me.

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Tom Cagley December 30, 2013 at 08:55 AM
Dr. Eclectic: You are so right on about your comments. In the mid to late 80's, over 75% of members of Congress had served in the military, today that figure is probably less than 25%. They have the opinion that so many politicians and public figures have, the military is well paid with a generous retirement, etc, etc. I don't know when you left the Badger state to cruise the seven seas, but when I left the cornfields of Indiana in '63, we were promised free medical, free dental, commissaries, et al, for life, if we were willing to work for a little less than our civilian counterparts. SOmewhere along the line those committments got dropped for providing benefits to others. Funny, isn't it, how we cannot touch public employees retirements, but the military's benefits are always 'on the table!' Will look forward to your post re Cosby. Looking for the return of Congress, not so much! :)

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