Despite previous indications from major discount stores that they would commit to providing discounts to service members as an alternative to the commissary benefit, none really appear willing to take that step, compensation experts have told Congress.
"We talked to the Wal-Marts, the others, about the benefit they would offer, if they were to offer a benefit," Alphonso Maldon Jr., chairman of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, told the the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
"Quite honestly, at the end of the day, no one was willing to stand behind their comments they may have made about providing some savings to the service member," Maldon said.
That was in response to a question from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., about whether the commission had considered assessing local areas around military bases to gauge the real need for commissaries.
"I've been stationed at bases — Fort Campbell [Kentucky] stands out in my mind — that had a nice commissary, but had an even better Wal-Mart supercenter outside the gates," said Cotton, who served as an Army infantry officer for nearly five years, and whose state is home to the headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
"Several of the big chains [have] talked about issuing cards to the military. But when we asked their representatives point blank, 'Would you do it?'... we never got a straight answer," said commission member Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller
"By and large, people want [the commissary] because it's convenient, it's near them, it's military, it's responsive to their needs," Zakheim said. "We made our recommendations based on feedback. Pretty much overwhelmingly, this is not something they want to go away."
Commissioners noted that the true savings for commissary customers is the subject of much discussion. "But if you even cut the high number — 31 percent — in half, it's still a great savings to that E-7 with four kids and a wife who has made a decision to stay home and take care of the kids and be an at-home mom," said commissioner Pete Chiarelli, a retired Army general.
Maldon said the commission spent a lot of time talking to troops, family members and installation commanders across the country, and that its survey of troops and families came up with the same results.
"The service members believe that [the commissary] is a big savings to them and also believe it's a retention tool," Chiarelli said.
Staff writer Patricia Kime contributed to this story.