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Editorial Comment — March 2012

The Lost Platoon ...

There is a lost platoon of unsung heroes in the fray, who keep fighting day-in, day-out; and though without them everything would screech to a halt, sometimes it seems it's all too easy to forget who they are, what they do and why they are there.

A recent article in E and C News reported that military resale had said goodbye to 50 people from the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), and the parting was not without pain. Among those departing were many who took with them years of valuable experience and expertise in delivering the benefit to the military. Their service is remembered and stands as a tribute to their comrades who continue to serve those who serve. All too often, however, these dedicated people of resale seem to get lost in the shuffle when it comes to high-level conversation about “the constrained fiscal environment.”

Amid all the talk of policy, budget cuts, sequestration, new rounds of base realignment and closure (BRAC), and all the goals, objectives and initiatives that are pursued, rolled out or implemented every day, it's easy to lose track of the fact that it's people that make the benefits happen, and it's people who deliver the benefit to other people — to the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardmen and women, National Guard, reserves, veterans and their families — and support military and family readiness.

People in the resale industry are blessed to work side-by-side and in concert with a cadre of extremely dedicated and talented men and women. It's fast-paced, often urgent work. The various networks of military exchanges and commissaries are really like no other retail organizations — no matter whether other publications and entities refer to them simply as grocery stores, or, worse still, “Walmart-like.”

Certainly, on the surface they perform many of the same tasks, but any deeper comparisons must end there.

Unlike the civilian store networks, military stores serve a constantly and rapidly moving force that can change direction at a moment's notice. The military also has special requirements, and food and work safety needs that their resale counterparts are uniquely adept at addressing. Resale stores on each base essentially become partners with base commanders, and their myriad morale, welfare and recreation (MWR) entities and troop and family readiness programs.

And that's often when you see these dedicated associates and commissary workers, region, area, headquarters staff and their suppliers, spring into action together, to rapidly open a new store on time to greet an influx of returning servicemembers and their families. Or it may be to coordinate a new spouse event, a special promotion, a “welcome home” sale and ceremony, a family fun fitness event, a pet parade or a food or wine tasting.

And for those associates who have served in the theater of combat operations in the last 10 years, it has been and continues to be dangerous and extremely demanding work. The amazing thing, however, is that you never hear a word of complaint about it — they go the extra mile, they go in harm's way, they live in austere conditions, they pile on hours upon hours of shifts in heat, humidity, cold and dirt, to deliver their respective benefits and services ... and savings.

Servicemembers appreciate them enormously downrange, and when they return Stateside, as chance may have it, they sometimes meet again in another store when their downrange assignments have ended. Their work, they find, is rewarding no matter the hardships endured. As members of the extended military family, they are glad to “give back,” to bring a familiar touch or favorite taste, or simply smiles to the faces of troops, whether near or far from home.

And that's why you might have heard, so many times, that the line to volunteer to deploy is a long one, and that those who do volunteer, volunteer again and again.

One large part of operations in Southwest Asia may be over, for now. But really, it's hard to predict what will be asked of resale next. The Army has asked to postpone its downsizing for six years because of instability in the region. There continue to be natural disasters and humanitarian crises aplenty that require the military's aid. Last year saw another series of natural and other disasters in Japan, stemming from the March 14 earthquake/tsunami and nuclear crisis at the Fukushima reactor. Resale and its industry partners answered the bell, helped ensure safe foods and a safe shopping environment — and they can be counted on to do so again ... and again ... and again.

But there is a danger in taking them all for granted, and there is a danger in the hifalutin' theories of the “lack-of-thought tanks” who, while they may be firmly credentialed in economic and enterprise theory and practice, fail to understand that the military, first and foremost, depends on its people, and the people who support those people. As more resale personnel are cut, it gets to the point where the system is in danger of losing continuity — the continuity that makes the benefits work.

Keep on chopping away at the base of the resale tree and for sure you're going to get timber, but there is no tree that grows from a sapling to a great oak overnight to replace it. Commissaries and exchanges have 146 and 116 years of progress, respectively, not to mention a special brotherhood and sisterhood with those whom they serve.

We are fortunate to have leadership in the White House and the Pentagon who understand these ideas, and they have made a point in their budget requests of “keeping the faith with troops and their families,” and keeping commissary funding steady. The work of the exchanges must also be protected from rash moves.

But make no mistake, the woodcutters will sharpen their fiscal axes, and the battle for military benefits will grind on.

Wheresoever the military goes, the unsung heroes of resale will follow right behind, and wherever there are servicemembers, veterans and their families ... they will quietly continue to go above and beyond the call.

This was Murry Greenwald's last editorial.

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