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Defense Commissary Agency Has 140-Year History, 231-Year Heritage

By Dr. Peter D. Skirbunt
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT LEE, Va., Sept. 29, 2006 – The Defense Commissary Agency preserves a military benefit officially established 140 years ago, with a heritage extending back to the American Revolution.

In 1775, Congress created the Office of the Commissary General of Stores and Purchases to provide the Army’s daily rations. Fifty years later, the “Commissariat,” as it was then known, began selling items from its warehouses “at cost” to Army officers for their personal use. By 1841, officers could also purchase items for their families.

The dietary needs of enlisted men, whose official rations were not particularly healthy, were largely dependent upon civilian merchants for additional food. Merchants selling to the Army were “sutlers;” those who sold to the Navy in harbors around the world were known as “bumboaters.” These merchants sold hard goods and all sorts of edibles, including canned goods, fresh fruits and vegetables. They provided a valuable service, but many of them overcharged or sold inferior goods.

During the Civil War, while men on both sides complained about prices and quality, some unscrupulous sutlers grew rich. After the war, Congress began to phase the sutlers out of business. In 1866, it authorized the Army to sell goods at cost from its subsistence warehouses to officers and enlisted men alike. These sales, which began on July 1, 1867, were the start of the modern commissary system. In 1868, customers could choose from an official 82-item stock list.

Congress established sales stores “wherever needed,” with no restrictions on their geographical locations. The notion that commissaries were originally established for remote frontier posts is untrue; in fact, “remote” or “frontier” posts were actually the last places to have commissary sales stores. They were the very places where fully stocked commissaries could not be maintained due to distance, bad roads, hostile tribes and bad winter weather. Such forts were supplied by a combination of “issue” commissaries, “sales” commissaries and “post traders,” who were under Army contract and could not sell anything available at the commissaries. By 1895, when railroads were bringing supplies to most forts, sutlers were no longer needed.

Overseas commissaries followed the acquisition of territory during the Spanish-American War. The first store overseas opened in Manila in 1899, and soon there were more than 30 other stores throughout the Philippines. Suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China prompted the establishment of a commissary in Peking in 1900, and construction of the Panama Canal prompted a series of military and civilian stores to open in Panama after 1904.

Following the around-the-world voyage of the Navy’s “Great White Fleet” in 1907-09, the Navy realized bumboats were inadequate for supplying the needs of a modern fleet. Consequently, in 1909 Congress provided for ships’ stores afloat and ashore for the Navy and Marine Corps; the “stores ashore” would later become known as commissaries. The first of these opened in 1910 at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard, just down the street from Congress -- a clear example of Congress’ intent to establish the commissaries wherever necessary and not only at remote posts. By 1930, the Navy disallowed doing business with bumboats.

Commissaries’ customer base gradually expanded. Initially established for the benefit of active-duty personnel, commissaries began selling to retirees in 1879, and reaffirmed the practice in 1916. In the decade before World War II, store privileges were extended to members of the Lighthouse Service, as well as spouses and widows of uniformed personnel.

Other changes came quickly following the war. Perishable goods were officially placed on the commissary stock list in 1945. The first Air Force commissaries opened in 1947, the year the Air Force was established. In 1949, the Armed Services Commissary Store Regulation standardized the stock list, terminology and other criteria for all the armed services, and specified the qualifications for commissary patrons.

To help cover the stores’ expenses, in 1952 the Department of Defense ordered an across-the-board 2-percent surcharge; this was gradually increased until it reached the current level, 5 percent, in 1983. Funds generated by the surcharge pay for construction, renovation and maintenance of commissary structures, as well as for some supplies and equipment.

More recently, members of the Guard and Reserve received full-time shopping privileges in 2003. Stock lists, limited to 82 items in 1867, today offer more than 14,000 items.

Each service continued to maintain its own commissary procedures, and several large organizations gradually emerged: the Navy Resale System in 1967, followed by the Navy Resale Support Office, which directed operations of Navy commissaries. The Army Troop Support Agency was activated in 1972, and the Air Force Commissary Service began operations in 1976.

In 1990, Congress and the Defense Department decided to consolidate the individual service systems. Army Maj. Gen. John P. Dreska was named the agency’s first director, and Fort Lee, Va., became home to its headquarters. The agency officially took control of 410 military commissaries and multiple-related operations (such as Air Force troop support operations, and sales to U.S. Embassy personnel) on Oct. 1, 1991. After Dreska, the agency was led by Army Maj. Gen. Richard E. Beale Jr. and Air Force Maj. Gens. Robert J. Courter and Michael P. Wiedemer. Its current director is Senior Executive Service civilian Patrick B. Nixon.

After a decade of base closures and realignments, DeCA now has 264 stores. Of these, more than 140 are new or have undergone extensive renovation. Today’s commissaries are much like their civilian supermarket counterparts, using scanning and other technologies to provide customers with a modern shopping experience, and establishing various cost-saving initiatives that have earned the agency several governmental awards. The agency is constantly reviewing, adjusting and improving its procedures, bringing the benefit into the 21st century.

(Dr. Peter D. Skirbunt is the Defense Commissary Agency historian.)

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