Commissaries will close more days because of sequestration

June 10, 2013 Updated: June 10, 2013 at 2:20 pm
photo - Spec. Joshua Theno runs the spotlights during The Soldier Show and warms up families who come early for the show at Ft. Carson on Thursday, May 30, 2013. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)
Spec. Joshua Theno runs the spotlights during The Soldier Show and warms up families who come early for the show at Ft. Carson on Thursday, May 30, 2013. (Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

It's just a tiny piece of $1 trillion in budget cuts the Pentagon expects to make over the next decade.

Furloughs - unpaid days off for government employees that are being used to balance the Pentagon's books - will close the commissaries on Mondays from July 1 through Sept. 30. For the Air Force Academy's commissary, closed on Mondays, the extra day of closure will come on Tuesdays.

The belt-tightening at the Defense Commissary Agency is bringing the cuts to the kitchens of military families and retirees in the Pikes Peak region and has them asking one worried question.

"What's next?" said retired Army Lt. Gen. Ed Anderson of Colorado Springs.

Commissaries, military grocery stores that are subsidized by the Pentagon, are a prized benefit for military families, offering low-cost food. The commissary agency estimates its customers, who pay 5 percent over cost, save 30 percent over civilian shoppers.

The three commissaries at Pikes Peak region bases draw huge crowds, especially for their famed case lot sales.

The furloughs and a commissary hiring freeze implemented come from sequestration - automatic cuts that took hold this year when Congress didn't reach an accord over the federal deficit. Those cuts will carve $41 billion from the Pentagon's $573 billion budget by Oct. 1 and cut $500 billion in Pentagon spending over 10 years.

The Pentagon was planning to cut $500 billion over 10 years when the new cuts took hold - bringing the total to $1 trillion over a decade.

Commissary customers admit that, while they don't like the cuts, they won't cause too much pain.

"It's not the end of the world," said retired Air Force Master Sgt. Larry Anderson of Colorado Springs.

Unlike cuts in weapons systems, training days, research and dozens of other areas target by Pentagon cost-cutters, this one will be felt at home. Programs for military families, from child care to counseling, have been touted as a top Pentagon priority since the 9/11 attacks.

"Now it's reaching the family side of the house," said Ed Anderson, who heads the National Homeland Defense Foundation in Colorado Springs.

Commissaries have weathered repeated assaults in the past thanks to a fierce group of defenders - predominantly military family and retiree groups. One idea, floated several times over the past 20 years, would privatize commissaries by selling them off to a major retailer.

Commissaries not only survived unscathed, they've grown.

In the Pikes Peak region, Fort Carson and Peterson Air Force Base host two of the largest, most modern commissaries in the Defense Department, with amenities to rival any of their civilian counterparts in town.

"We try to make commissaries worth the trip," Defense Commissary Agency spokeswoman Nancy O'Nell said.

Fort Carson's commissary, the region's newest, opened in May 2012. With 28 checkout registers, it was designed to support the region's estimated 115,000 authorized commissary users, including active-duty troops, military dependents and retirees.

Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Howard Suarez said he's not a commissary shopper but worries that cuts there could be a sign of bigger things to come.

"When they start cutting, everybody has to take a hit," he said.

Retirees are especially worried about budget-cutting ideas that would increase their benefit costs - including a Pentagon proposal that would increase fees for Tricare - the Pentagon's version of civilian health insurance - to 2 percent of retired pay over five years.

"When it comes down to bullets or benefits, benefits are going to suffer," said Larry Anderson, who saw repeated rounds of cuts during his years in the Air Force.

"We recognize that the brunt will be borne by the active-duty and the retired personnel."

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