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Department of Defense Expands Commissary System

by Whitcomb, Selinsky, PC Staff / December 20, 2019

Access to commissary, military exchange, and morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) retail privileges on U.S. military installations is being expanded by the Department of Defense.  Beginning January 1, 2020, discounted, on-post stores will be expanded to include Purple Heart recipients, veterans who are former prisoners of war, and primary family caregivers of eligible veterans.

Major Expansion Ahead

Until the expansion is implemented, eligibilityto shop at on-base commissaries and exchanges in the United States has been limited to active-duty troops, members of the National Guard, and military retirees and their family members. The expansion will provide access to commissaries, military service exchanges, golf courses, bowling centers, recreational lodging, RV campgrounds, and movie theaters to more than 4.1 million new patrons.

The System Today

The U.S. commissary system provides discounted groceries and household goods to active-duty, Reserve and Guard members, military retirees, authorized family members, DOD civilian employees overseas and other designated categories. Commissary benefits provided to military personnel first became available in 1825. The commissary system was expanded in 1841 to allow officers to purchase items for members of their immediate families. Expansion of the on-base shopping privileges was established by the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy stated the “new privileges recognize the service and sacrifice of these veterans and those that Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy care of them.” Senators John Boozman of Arkansas Brian Schatz of Hawaii led efforts to expand the commissary to more veterans. Mr. Schatz added, “if you have the Purple Heart, you should also have access to the commissary. It’s as simple as that.” Unfortunately, not all veterans are eligible for in-person commissary privileges. Honorably discharged veterans however are eligible for online military exchange shopping through the Veterans Online Shopping Benefit.

Veterans that will be eligible to shop at commissaries and exchanges must possess a Veterans Affairs (VA) issued Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC) to be granted access to installations and prove their eligibility. The VHIC displays the eligibility status, such as Purple Heart, Former POW, etc. VHIC cards are not the same as Veteran Identification Cards (VIC). VIC’s are issued to veterans enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs health care. Veterans can acquire a VHIC through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Once they acquire their VHIC, they must present their VHIC to gain access to commissaries. Veterans who are not enrolled in VA health care and do not possess a VHIC card, will not have access to in-person commissary, exchange and MWR retail privileges. However, they will still have access to online exchanges and American Forces Travel. Honorably discharged veterans are also eligible for online military exchange shopping through the Veterans Online Shopping Benefit.

But Not All Family Members - Primary Care Givers

Family members of eligible veterans and caregivers do not hold commissary privileges. Caregivers eligible under this act should expect to receive a letter from the VA Office of Community Care indicating they are approved and designated as the primary family caregiver of an eligible veteran and are eligible for these benefits. Authorized caregivers are not limited to a disabled veteran’s spouse. Authorized caregivers are approved and designated by the Department of Veterans Affairs Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. For entry into commissary stores, exchanges, and MWR retail facilities, caregivers will need to show their credentials and eligibility letter. Accepted credentials include: DoD common access card, VHIC, Transportation Worker Identification Card, REAL ID- compliant driver’s license issued by a state, territory or the District of Columbia, U.S. passport, or federal personal identity verification card.

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User Fees Will Be Assessed

Eligible shoppers will be charged a “user fee” designed to offset new costs to the Treasury Department for processing credit and debit cards. However, according to the Pentagon, “even with the surcharge, patrons receive an average worldwide savings of 23.7% over commercial grocery stores.” Shoppers that visit commissary installations are required to stop at the Visitor Control Center. They must pass a background check on-the-spot prior to enrolling. Veterans with felony convictions, arrest warrants, or other criminal history will not be allowed to enter.

The expansion of the commissary system provides benefits for both the commissary as well as for the Veteran patrons. A review by the Department of Defense indicated that expanding access to new patrons would strengthen the commissary system. The system is also considered the most important non-cash compensation benefit among service members. For more information on the commissary expansion, call Whitcomb Selinsky PC at (866) 476-4558.


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