The military exchanges have the green light to open their online doors to veterans by Nov. 11, an idea initially proposed by a top exchange official nearly three years ago.
Defense Department officials notified the congressional oversight committees Jan. 11 of their intent to open up the military exchange online shopping benefit to all honorably discharged veterans. On Jan. 18, a memorandum went out with guidance for the military departments to implement the program by Nov. 11.
Congress had 30 days from the notification to lodge any protests, but "to date, the department has not received any concerns from the committees," said Army Lt. Col. Myles Caggins, a DoD spokesman, on Wednesday.
DoD will address any future congressional concerns, but "no further guidance to the military departments is necessary for them to begin preparation to implement this online exchange benefit," Caggins said.
The new shopping privileges will apply only to online shopping, not to brick-and-mortar stores. Newly eligible veterans -- DoD estimates there are 15 million of them -- wouldn't be able to buy uniforms, alcohol or tobacco products.
While plans call for a Veterans Day launch, officials can approve an earlier start date if they deem it appropriate, according to the Jan. 18 memo. Preparations include ordering and stocking the increased inventory, and other operational requirements.
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service, or AAFES, and Navy Exchange Service Command, or NEXCOM, have online shopping websites, but authorized shoppers can buy from either site, regardless of branch of service.
The Army's top enlisted soldier already has offered his support for the program.
"It’s an outstanding ability to provide services to those who have served," Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey told Military Times. "It’s in line with our Soldier for Life program. We believe that once you’ve served, you’re always a member of the Army team. We should recognize and value that service for your entire life.
"So we’ve benefited our veterans for serving, giving them an online shopping benefit where they can buy products and goods from all over the United States, and simultaneously support the military directly," he added. "It helps with the morale, welfare and recreation programs, and we don’t have to spend tax dollars to do that."
HOW IT WILL WORK
As they do with other authorized customers, the exchanges will use data provided by the Defense Manpower Data Center to verify veteran eligibility for online shopping privileges. Veterans whose records are incomplete or don't appear in the Veterans Affairs Department database will need to register through VA, according to a letter to congressional committees with oversight over DoD and VA issues by Peter Levine, former acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
The exchange services will provide registration information on their online sites, and the AAFES call center will help veterans navigate the process.
Veterans with honorable discharges will be authorized to shop online at any of the military exchange sites regardless of service branch, but they won't be able to receive a DoD identification card through the program, or gain access to DoD installations and other DoD property where exchanges are located.
There are no plans to extend the benefit to these veterans' dependents because "it would be cost prohibitive to collect and track these individuals in the database used for verification of eligibility," Levine wrote in the letter.
AAFES will invest about $1.8 million a year to cover costs associated with the expansion of their online platform, according to Levine's letter. If 0.3 percent of the newly eligible veteran group – or about 45,000 veterans – shop online, that cost is expected to be recouped.
AAFES CEO Tom Shull formally proposed the idea of expanding the benefit to honorably discharged veterans to DoD on May 14, 2014, noting that it would provide a modest benefit to those who had served but left the military short of retirement. Defense officials determined that it could be accomplished administratively, without a change in law.
Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.