July was a banner month for activists looking to maintain broad access to U.S. military commissaries and exchanges.
The Coalition to Save our Military Shopping Benefits drew a slew of new partners, including the National Military Family Association, the Fleet Reserve Association, the National Industries for the Blind, the Military Officers Association of American and the Non-Commissions Officers Association.
Commissary benefits have been under fire as Congress seeks to pare back budgets.
A July 2011 report by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., “Back in Black,” called for consolidating military commissaries and exchanges into a single, nonsubsidized retail system over five years. Earlier this year, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee voted to eliminate the federal subsidy for commissaries. It recommended the Department of Defense combine commissaries and exchanges in order to pay for mandated savings.
Reducing the commissary benefit “significantly diminishes the compensation for the military families at a time when we are in two wars. You don’t take away something like this that has this much value,” said Patrick Nixon, president of the coalition.
The system’s $1.3 billion subsidy helps military families save an average of 31 percent by shopping in the commissary, he said, and 20 percent by shopping in the exchanges.
In addition to providing discount food and goods, commissaries also a major source of work for military families. The possibility of employment carries special weight “at a time when there are limited employment opportunities for spouses as they move from station to station,” Nixon said.
Of 15,510 employees in the Defense Commissary Agency, 4,197 are military spouses and 1,967 are dependants, Nixon said. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service employs 42,390 people, of whom 9,701, or almost 23 percent, are military family members.
Not everyone is swayed by these figures. Coburn says his plan to consolidate commissaries and exchanges into a single, nonsubsidized retail system would save $9.1 billion over 10 years, even if the government provided a $400-a-year allowance to active-duty military families to make up for the estimated 7 percent hike in grocery prices.
Along with its newly recruited partners, the coalition is monitoring new legislation and reaching out to customers to keep them apprised of potential cuts.
“We try to keep the patrons informed about their benefits, about threats to their benefits, about how the savings are calculated, what the savings can mean to them,” Nixon said. “The best way to protect the system is if the patrons will protect it, if they use it and value it. That’s the strongest way to make the case for the value of the system.”