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Editorial Comment — July 2012

145 Years, And Still Saving ...

Happy 145th birthday, commissaries! Now what have you done for us lately?

Quite a lot, as a matter of fact.

Using commissary transactions as a gauge, patrons voted in favor of shopping their Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) stores more than 96 million times last year. In the process, they reaped about $2 billion in savings, and often a lot more on military-specific manufacturer and broker promotions that are a hallmark of DeCA's relationship with its suppliers.

Those are huge numbers that make an enormous statement about what the military community thinks of the commissary benefit. And transactions have continued to grow at around a 2-percent clip through the first seven months of DeCA's current fiscal year.

Every payday, resale stores, especially commissaries, are shopped with unmatched fervor. Double paydays present an even greater challenge for stores to stay well-stocked — which means that servicemembers and their families are taking advantage of a vital non-pay benefit. As efforts to protect the resale benefits from sequestration have ramped up recently, patrons have been speaking out loudly about just how essential commissaries and exchanges are to sustaining military families, and providing incentives for valuable trained and experienced warrior NCOs and officers to reenlist or stay in the force.

This past month, the National Military Family Association (NMFA), the Fleet Reserve Association (FRA) and the National Industries for the Blind (NIB) came on board in support of an important effort — the Coalition to Save Our Military Shopping Benefits. NMFA Executive Director Joyce Wessel Raezer explained one aspect of the problem perfectly when she said, "Those who don't understand the return provided by the commissary appropriation periodically try to cut that funding or divert it elsewhere, and we and other commissary supporters must 'educate' them and fight to maintain those funds."

These organizations represent spouses, servicemembers, retired veterans and others who rely heavily on the commissary benefit. Thousands of military dependents are employed in resale stores, including members of these organizations.

Why this lesson needs to be relearned every budget cycle is one of government's most enduring mysteries; and it may have a lot to do with the jaded, aloof and discredited reports that continue to be the stock-in-trade of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Brookings Institution when they scurry to score savings proposals on the subject of resale, without taking into account the real impacts on military personnel.

It's ironic that the agencies they target have already achieved model efficiencies and levels of cooperation organically amongst themselves.

The lesson is not lost inside the military. One of the Army's most accomplished four-star generals, Gen. Anne E. Dunwoody, USA, commanding general, Army Materiel Command, told E and C News during her tenure as chairman of the Commissary Operating Board (COB), "You'd be hard pressed to find a time in our history where we've asked so much, for so long of so many. ... And the commissary provides a tangible benefit that can lift some of their burden. Our national leaders have rightly identified the commissary as an important component of military readiness.

"What is extraordinary is how DeCA continues to sharpen its business practices; and today, we have a world-class commissary system that operates at near-peak efficiency — one that continues to increase the commissary's value to servicemembers and their families."

The only thing that's changed since Dunwoody uttered those words five years ago is that DeCA has become leaner and more efficient, has restructured again, and ever more closely resembles one of the prime steaks it sells in its meat department: cut to the muscle, all the fat trimmed.

For an organization that has "leaned" itself so drastically in the last 21 years, further cuts envisaged in sequestration would no longer be cuts to DeCA so much as they would be cuts to the benefit itself, directly impacting the patron. Stores would be closed, and store hours would be sliced back to where they would erode the usability and viability of the benefit the customers have earned through their sacrifice to the nation.

If a resolution is not reached in time to prevent sequestration, the most important thing to remember is that DeCA has already done more than its part in contributing savings to the Department of Defense (DoD) balance sheet. As the agency's director/chief executive officer (CEO), Joseph H. Jeu, testified in recent hearings on Capitol Hill, "Since its activation in 1991, operating costs have been reduced by more than $900 million and its workforce reduced by more than 6,600 full time equivalent positions."

Along the way, DeCA has garnered 10 consecutive "unqualified opinions" — perfect audits — on its finances, and has tied for first place in the Defense Department four times in the last five years with its annual statements of assurance.

This is great for the agency, but the greater significance is that it all adds up to "relevance" to servicemembers and their families.

Times haven't improved for patrons. Food stamp redemptions, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs bear that out. Use by service families jumped 12 percent and 9 percent, respectively, in DeCA's first quarter.

And commissary transactions continue to rise. In the words of DeCA Promotions Chief Charles Dowlen, "patrons are attempting to stretch their dollars as much as possible, and that's why they shop the commissaries." That, in turn, does a lot for readiness, and by extension "us" — the national security of the U.S.

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