Military Times

Senior enlisted: Expanding veterans online shopping could reap rewards for families

Two senior enlisted advisers made a passionate pitch for the idea of expanding exchange online shopping privileges to all honorably discharged veterans -- which would be a way to bring in more money for shrinking morale, welfare and recreation programs.

The senior enlisted advisers of the Army and Air Force discussed the idea at the DoD Military Family Readiness Council Sept. 15, but it was unclear whether the full council approved making a recommendation to the secretary of Defense in support of the idea. 

The Veterans Online Shopping Benefit would only apply to online shopping at the exchange websites and wouldn't apply to shopping in exchange stores on bases. At its Sept. 14 meeting, the family council discussed the idea as one way to raise revenue for MWR programs.

Expanding the benefit to all veterans "would ultimately raise revenue," said Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey, which would in turn increase the contributions that the exchanges make to morale, welfare and recreation programs for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and family members. Budget restraints are causing some reductions in funding for MWR programs, he said. The Army recently announced a $105 million reduction in funding for MWR programs across its installations, except for those in overseas and remote locations.

Increasing the number of people who can shop at the exchanges online is projected to bring in several hundred million dollars in additional profit, Dailey said, much of which would go back to bases for MWR programs.

He noted that DoD has spent years studying the idea. It was proposed more than two years ago by Army and Air Force Exchange Service CEO Tom Shull and has been supported by officials in charge of the Navy and Marine Corps exchange services. On Aug. 9, the DoD Executive Resale Board voted unanimously to recommend the policy change. But it still must go through more wickets in DoD.

The big issue for defense officials has been the Veterans Affairs Department, said Stephanie Barna, principal deputy to the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. She said DoD officials have been working closely with the VA to reach an agreement in an effort to avoid "stepping on toes."

The VA operates its Veterans Canteen Service stores in VA medical facilities, and VCS is preparing to launch an online shopping portal.

"At the end of the day, we’re not looking to compete with anybody or take away anybody’s business. We don’t try to tell anybody not to shop at another benefit online," said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody. "We’re losing millions of dollars in revenue in the discussion phase."

The issue of the online shopping benefit seems to be within the council’s purview, said Dr. David Rubin, a council member and director of PolicyLab, a research center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

"It’s the elephant on the table. It’s revenue for children and youth programs," he said.

Recommendations from the council headed to the secretary of defense:

  • A general recommendation to promote the standardization of the exceptional family member programs; and taking action to improve health care services for families with special needs.
  • Exploring public-private partnerships as a way to improve all manner of services for military families.
  • Increasing prevention efforts for child abuse and neglect.
  • Continuing support for Military OneSource and especially communicating the services it offers to the youngest members of the military and families.
  • Expanding the use of tuition assistance for licensing and technical certifications for service members and families.

The congressionally-mandated DoD Military Family Readiness Council was established in 2008 as a federal advisory council to make recommendations to the Secretary of Defense about policies and programs for military families.

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