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Editorial Comment — January 2013

Out of Touch ...

The reality for today's professional military is that about 1 percent of the population protects the other 99 percent, and only a small number of that 1 percent continue on to complete a military career. But full career or not, they and their families are our silent heroes who get the job done so the rest of us can sleep at night.

A recent editorial published in the Military Times newspapers suggested that the commissary benefits the 1 percent earn (worth in many cases more than $4,400 a year) be replaced with a $400 annual stipend, and they should pay the same civilian prices, full market rate, as the 99 percent they defend — even in high-cost areas like Hawaii and Washington, D.C.

As much as we enjoy reading Military Times, we were utterly flabbergasted.

Already, many military families are participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — once known as Food Stamps — which has seen double-digit increases in transactions in each of the last five years, showing that things are not getting any easier for the military families who need military resale benefits the most. The only good thing about the increased participation among commissary shoppers is that it shows that when it comes to using food stamps, patrons know exactly where to find the most value for their grocery dollar. And for every military family getting by with a close-to-subsistence-level income, there are others approaching it.

For Military Times to join in with the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) continuously recycled rhetoric advocating defunding and converting the commissary benefit to a for-profit model — which would directly impact the pocketbooks of servicemembers, retirees and their families — seems out of touch.

There's a misconception out there, that because 70-80 percent of troops now live off base, they don't shop the commissary. Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) data indicates, however, that 3.6 million active-duty personnel (including family members) make use of the commissary benefit, joined by another 2.8 million National Guard and reserve and family members.

The Military Times papers' editorial also perpetuates the myth that commissaries were created only to serve the needs of soldiers at remote locations. Some of the first stores authorized were at such “remote” locations as New York, N.Y.; Philadelphia, Pa.; and St. Louis, Mo.

Commissary sales stores were established to help all 48,000 soldiers in the post-Civil War Army stretch their meager pay, no matter where they were stationed. Does anyone really think today's ever-so-thriftily paid troops, often ordered to high cost-of-living locations, don't place as great a value on a 30-percent savings on their groceries as their 19th-century predecessors did on their own non-pay benefit?

It's understandable that military-minded people would pause for more than a moment if forced to choose between funding weapons systems and funding the military “grocery stores” that it has recently become quasi-fashionable to deride.

On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, until one remembers that for at least 40 of the last 71 years since the U.S. entered into World War II (and we're not including the Cold War), the nation has required boots on the ground around the world, and human hands at the controls of the most effective weapons systems, to assure its security. Some troops may be coming home, but there is no genuine sign that the most dangerous sources of global insecurity have changed their intents.

But that's besides another point that needs to be made: In this era of overwhelming balance sheet scrutiny, it's tempting to look only at one column — expenses.

In that minus column, CBO estimates reduced expenses of around $9 billion over 10 years from converting commissaries into nonappropriated fund entities. Where CBO also needs to look is at the directly connected offsetting gains on the plus side — plusses that would quickly become additional higher costs for the taxpayer to bear, were resale to be undermined.

In the plus column, folks familiar with resale's true value — as recently studied by ALA's Military Resale and MWR Center for Research — will find around $237 billion in benefits to the nation over the same estimated decade, amounting to about a 20-to-1 return on investment (ROI) for every dollar spent. That ROI doesn't happen anywhere in government except in military resale — and it's a concept so alien to the CBO that that is perhaps the reason why they hardly bother to look. But we hope that in the coming months and years of deliberations, the CBO, and think tanks making judgments on the same issues, will take these fiscal benefits to DoD and to the taxpayer into account.

The list of financial positives is enormous. Even two of them alone would just about offset the cost of the benefit. Take your pick from around $730 million annually in cost of living adjustments (COLA) avoided; $884 million a year to military household incomes in resale-related employment; another $880 million a year that DoD would pay to support otherwise essential stores that a commercial enterprise would deem unprofitable to run; $117 million in annual contingency support ... and there's plenty more.

Of course, there's also the mere $4.5 billion annually in savings that stretch military family payrolls that CBO seems so unconcerned about.

Seen in that light, would DoD really want to undo all that? Doing so would cost far more than keeping the status quo. And that's just one thing that anyone reading the CBO's, or Senator Tom Coburn's, tunnel-vision look at resale really needs to understand.

In the months ahead, there will still be a compulsion to squeeze more water from every taxable rock, and resale will no doubt continue to do its part — as it already has done to the tune of billions of dollars in savings and efficiencies — but it would be foolhardy to undercut this cornerstone of military family life, this source of strength for the military force.

Not just in wartime, but any time.

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