American military commissaries provide a military benefit of discounted groceries and household goods to active-duty, Reserve and Guard members of the uniformed services, retirees of these services, authorized family members, DOD civilian employees overseas and other designated categories. Commissaries constitute one of the top nonpay benefits for today’s military and are an important inducement to recruitment and retention of skilled personnel, while simultaneously holding down taxpayer costs.
The commissary benefit is not a recent innovation. Sales of goods from commissary department storehouses to military personnel began in 1825, when Army officers at specified posts could make purchases for their personal use, paying at-cost prices. By 1841, officers could also purchase items for members of their immediate families.
The modern era of sales commissaries actually began in 1867, when enlisted men received the same at-cost purchasing privileges officers had already enjoyed for four decades. No geographic restrictions were placed upon these sales; the commissary warehouse at every Army post could become a sales location, whether they were located on the frontier or near a large city. From the start, commissaries were meant to take on-post retail functions out of the hands of civilian vendors and post traders and allow the Army to “care for its own.” The stores provided wholesome food beyond what was supplied in the official rations, and the savings they provided supplemented military pay. The modern concept of commissary sales stores, which were established to benefit military personnel of all ranks by providing healthful foods “at cost,” reached its 150th anniversary on July 1, 2017.
COMMISSARIES CHANGE WITH THE TIMES
The commissary retail function developed and grew, roughly parallel to the development of the retail grocery industry. The commissaries’ 82-item stock list of 1868 was comparable to the stock assortment in a typical civilian dry goods grocery store at that time. Commissaries kept pace with developments in civilian supermarkets, and the average commissary today has about 12,000 line items. The largest stores have several thousand more.
The list of eligible shoppers has also grown. Originally, only active-duty Army personnel could shop. Today, personnel in all services, including the Coast Guard and National Guard, may shop in the commissary on any U.S. military installation, around the world. Retirees, first allowed to make commissary purchases in 1879, have shopping privileges, as do reservists and members of the National Guard. Immediate family members of service personnel are also eligible commissary shoppers.
As the role of the American military grew larger, commissaries began to spread around the world. The first overseas stores opened in the Philippines and in China in 1899 to 1900. They were soon followed by commissaries in the Caribbean and Panama. Eventually, all the services adopted the Army’s concept of commissary sales stores and tailored the concept to their own needs. The Navy and Marine Corps opened their first commissaries in 1909 and 1910, and the Air Force inherited its stores from the Army Air Forces in 1947 and 1948. By the mid-1970s, each of the services ran its own commissary agency, with differing procedures and systems: the Army Troop Support Agency (TSA), the Navy Resale System Support Office (NAVRESSO), the Commissary Section of the Marine Corps Services Command, and the Air Force Commissary Service (AFCOMS).
SEPARATE SYSTEMS COMBINED
In 1989, Congress directed the Defense Department to conduct a study of the separate military commissary systems. The ensuing report by the Jones Commission (headed by Army Lt. Gen. Donald E. Jones) recommended consolidating the service systems into one agency to improve service and save money. The Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) was established May 15, 1990, by a memorandum from the deputy secretary of defense. This was the first DOD functional agency consolidation during the post-Cold War cutbacks and downsizing.
The Defense Department appointed Army Maj. Gen. John P. Dreska as the agency’s first director in June 1990. Shortly afterward, a transition team of commissary functional experts began the consolidation and transition. DeCA assumed full control of all commissaries Oct. 1, 1991. Fort Lee, Virginia, was, and still is, the agency’s headquarters site.
After leading DeCA through its initial year of operation, Dreska retired in 1992, and Army Maj. Gen. Richard E. Beale Jr. became the new director. Beale retired from the military Sept. 30, 1996, but stayed on the job as the agency's first civilian director. He was succeeded by Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert J. Courter Jr. (November 1999 to August 2002) and Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael P. Wiedemer (August 2002 to October 2004). Patrick B. Nixon, who served as director and CEO from October 2004 to October 2007, was the first person in U.S. history to become director of any commissary agency after beginning his career at store level and steadily rising through the commissaries’ civilian career field. Following Nixon’s retirement, Richard S. Page served as acting director until the arrival of director and CEO, Philip E. Sakowitz Jr., in June 2008. Thomas E. Milks served as acting director and CEO following the retirement of Sakowitz in June 2010. Joseph H. Jeu subsequently served as the director and CEO from January 2011 until his retirement in June 2017. Michael Dowling served as acting director and CEO following Jeu’s retirement. On Oct. 24, DOD announced retired Navy Rear Adm. Robert J. Bianchi as the interim director and CEO. Bianchi is also CEO of the Navy Exchange Service Command.
Commissaries still sell discounted products to authorized patrons as they have since 1825. Today’s customers save thousands of dollars annually on their purchases compared to similar products at commercial retailers. Customers receive substantial additional savings through special sales and coupons. The discounted prices include a 5-percent surcharge, mandated by Congress, which covers the costs of building new commissaries and modernizing existing ones. Patrons thus help pay for their commissaries twice – once as taxpayers and once through the surcharge. Commissary employees’ salaries are tax-funded.
Surveys consistently rate commissaries as one of the military’s top nonpay benefits. Many young service families, particularly those stationed in high cost-of-living urban areas, simply could not make ends meet without the price savings provided by commissaries. Those savings amount to about double the appropriated cost of running the system. In other words, preserving this level of compensation in direct dollar payments to military personnel would cost the government twice the current fund appropriation.
At present, DeCA has more than fulfilled its expectations, producing savings far greater, and in a shorter period of time, than were projected in 1989. In 1998, DeCA received a President’s Quality Achievement Award in recognition of its commitment to using world-class standards to improve customer service and save tax dollars. A recent General Accounting Office report confirmed the commissary is a major factor in keeping highly trained, highly qualified men and women in the service, meeting the national defense needs of the United States. Today, the process of providing a quality benefit while reducing taxpayer costs continues as DeCA concentrates on its corporate objectives: Continually improve customer service and sustain customer savings; foster a corporate culture that creates a satisfying work force environment and provides opportunities for personal and professional growth; and increase effectiveness and efficiency through disciplined integration of technology, infrastructure and business process improvements.