Defense officials are considering a proposal to allow Defense Department civilians to shop at military exchanges.

Officials from each of the three exchange services reportedly signed a letter of support for the idea of limited shopping privileges for civilians; the letter was then sent to defense officials, according to one source. 

The initiative has the potential to significantly increase sales and profits, which would result in an upgrade of products and services, as well as additional financial support for quality of life programs, said Judd Anstey, a spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. He confirmed that the proposal is under review by DoD.

Military exchange operations are funded by markups of merchandise. The profits go partly to help fund the services' morale, welfare and recreation programs, and partly to build and renovate exchange stores.

The  idea to allow DoD civilians to use the exchange was reportedly proposed last summer by the Defense Resale Business Optimization Board, which includes leaders of the exchange and commissary systems.

In a presentation at a 2016 board meeting, officials noted that allowing DoD civilians to shop at military exchanges could bring extra sales of about $789 million a year, and profits of about $24 million a year. It would require a DoD policy change. 

The board also proposed allowing civilians to shop at commissaries, with a 5 percent user fee. That would require a legislative change. It was not immediately known whether defense officials are considering allowing DoD civilians to shop in commissaries, or whether the director of the Defense Commissary Agency also signed the letter of support. 

In a recent letter to Military Times, a civilian employee at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Air Force Base, Texas,  said being able to shop at exchanges, commissaries and gas stations would be very convenient.

"If they would allow civilians to purchase at these places, they could be making a lot more money," she wrote. "It's not that I want the tax-free saving that the military gets, it would just be convenient. Put a tax button on the register and charge me tax. Just let me run in for milk on my way home instead of having to go to the local market off base."

DoD and military resale officials have been searching for ways to make the exchanges more efficient and increase sales in order to put more profits toward MWR programs. Earlier this year, DoD officials approved expanding the online exchange shopping benefit to all honorably discharged veterans. That benefit, which will apply only to online stores, not exchanges on military bases, is set to start Nov. 11. 

Karen Jowers writes about military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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