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Editorial Comment — March 2014


“REALLY?” ...

Generals, admirals and defense secretaries come and go, as political administrations change; and the legacies they leave are sometimes impressive, sometimes shoddy.

But undoing more than 147 years of “at-cost” commissary non-pay compensation for servicemembers and their families — that would be a disgrace we cannot imagine any of them wanting their names attached to.

Quite frankly, we don't know where anyone even gets the gall to pull any corner of the financial rug out from under the military family, diminishing their de facto compensation by as much as 6 or 8 percent, as the recent proposed cuts to commissary funding could do.

We do understand, of course, that a century and a half of tradition is not by itself a basis for sound policy, and we also understand that financial pressures upon DoD are strong and will be long-lasting, but ... “really?” … has the commissary benefit endured this long only to be defunded because times got tough once again, because leadership remains ignorant or skeptical regarding its value, and because DoD's favorite advisors are ideologically motivated to cut benefits to the quick?

Or worse yet, because it's the financial path of least resistance in the budget?

And what would it net? Just a drop in the budget bucket — 3/10 of 1 percent. Again, Really? … Meanwhile, billions of dollars gush unmolested into the FW&A account (that's Fraud, Waste and Abuse, to borrow an accounting term), and billions of dollars of excess materiel rots in warehouses.

Perhaps the most telling language in the current proposal is that which removes any concern for the needs of the servicemembers the commissary still claims to support, and replaces it with a miserly focus on getting its money back, legislating in the following manner a revised primary consideration for establishing a commissary: striking the words “needs of members of the armed forces on active duty and the needs of dependents of such members” and inserting the words “feasibility of cost recovery.”

All in the military community can form their own opinions of just how highly their service is appreciated, and their retention is valued, by those words.

And when they realize this, we hope they will see that they need to stand up and set their leadership straight on just how valuable their commissary benefit is.

A few weeks ago, the military community mobilized against a provision in a law reducing COLA for young retirees that could cost an individual perhaps $80,000, according to some estimates, over the course of the time involved. Faced with the uproar, both houses of Congress and the White House acted immediately (well, in a time frame that passes as immediately for Congress and the White House). That part of the law was rescinded.

On national television early this month, a young military wife with three children told reporters she saved $200 every two weeks by shopping in the commissary. Over the same period as the COLA restriction, the proposed commissary cuts could cost her military family much more than $80,000. This uproar should be at least as great.

Don't be fooled by trade-offs for this or that other benefit — corners that surveys might try to trick you into. It's not about benefit trade-offs; it's about doing what's right by military families and funding the benefits they have earned through their service. And about DeCA continuing to do what it has done well time and time again — finding more efficiencies wherever it can reengineer its operations without harming the benefit.

We've had it with deceptions and empty promises. If you have, too, let your Representatives and your Senators know what Defense leadership is trying to get past them, and let them know that you won't stand for it. It's time the grass roots get moving before the budget lawnmower comes.

Generals, admirals and defense secretaries will be replaced, and different priorities will be established. But once relinquished, this non-pay benefit will not be reinstated. Congress and the Military community — don't give it up on your watch.

Really.

AND NOW, A PLAN ...

Since it appears that plans to mobilize actual commissary patrons have not been fully exploited, it's time to get a very tangible one started. The ALA and the Coalition to Save Our Benefit (SOB) have engaged their valued associates in the Veterans Service Organizations (VSO), but there is a little trouble in paradise. The VSOs have other fish to fry: Tricare, for one.

Those of us involved in the resale market have been advised not to lobby each other, and there's certainly some sense in not preaching to the choir, but there's also the question that if this group doesn't mobilize patrons, who the hell else will?

Industry has shown its ingenuity and resolve a thousand times before, and it can do so again. Engage commissary shoppers. Use all the resources at your disposal, including the Armed Forces Marketing Council (AFMC); and assign reps to commissaries — especially in states with chairs, vice chairs and ranking members on the military-related appropriations subcommittees in both the House and Senate — to stand at the door with petitions, and ask the shoppers to sign them. They could present tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of actual signatures to these constituents' legislators and to the White House and whoever else will influence the course of events in the next few months. The internet is nice, and Capwiz has an important role to play, but ground forces are urgently needed in short order. The clock is ticking.

We're not lawyers, but advocating for this sort of cause doesn't appear to conflict with DoD directives, and certainly comes within First Amendment rights to petition the government for redress of grievances.

We know that brokers and vendor partners would do all they can to ensure this gets done. The material cost would be minimal — printed petition forms, clipboards and pens and letters to hand out with some website information if shoppers want to share with others.

Industry already knows when — on paydays, when most shop; extra hours expended to truly save the benefit would make sense here. Thousands have been spent already on other programs, with — not very reassuringly — not much to show for it … except the hope that the compensation commission interviews real shoppers (as by all accounts it has not yet got round to the patrons who would be most affected by the funding cuts).

Time to engage your energies and resources so that commissary patrons' voices are heard where they can have the most impact.

Maybe then things can get pointed back in the right direction — building sales, not stacking the deck to reduce them.

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