(An archive post from [gasp] 2004, wherein I attempted to explain and demystify certain military practices and establishments to a strictly civilian readership. I was reminded of this series, as one of the chief effects of the fed-gov shut-down is that just about all of the military commissaries at stateside bases will be closed from about midday today. The resulting effect on the retiree and active duty population at stateside bases probably will be rather minor, especially for those bases in or near larger cities, since Walmart, Target, Costco, Sam’s Club and local grocery chains provide alternative sources.)
The main attraction of these privileges – access to the military base Commissary and Exchange – lies mostly in the fact that such access is forbidden to the usual run of civilians, and so they tend to think of them as vast Aladdin’s caves of riches and materiel things, to which they do not have the magic key! Alas, while I am fairly sure that the gold-plated bases in the military pantheon probably are pretty well stocked with the luxury goods, and may very well resemble Aladdin’s cave, at the ordinary level they are as Cpl. Blondie observed “full of stuff you don’t need.”
When I was giving the school-kiddy tours at Mather AFB, to kids who had never been on a military base before, I would have the school-bus driver take a circuitous loop around the base, and point out the various establishments: “A base is just like a city or a town– this is the Headquarters building, it’s like the Mayor’s office and the City Hall, over there is the housing area, where everyone lives with their families. There is even an elementary school for the kids. That is our grocery store, only we call it the commissary. We even have our own gas station… this is the Exchange, it is just like a small department store, with a little bit of everything…”
The BX and the Commissary exist for a couple of reasons, the main one being that in remote areas they are the only game in town, in overseas locations they are often the most affordable source of familiar goods and comestibles, and at stateside bases because they are convenient to the military workforce and offer prices a little under that of the off-base marketplace… and dammit, because it is our privilege and right, it has always been that way! To suggest changing it radically, or abolishing it all together would be to risk going deaf… from the screams of protest originating from the military and veteran communities. It is also a rationale for military salaries being what they are, since the low salary is offset by being able to live in housing, take advantage of the generous medical benefits, and being able to get name-brand cans of tomato sauce a couple of cents cheaper per 14 ounce can.
I shouldn’t be so flip about saving pennies, though, because it does matter sometimes. There were times in my life when I shopped with a calculator, and carefully weighed the purchase of three onions as opposed to two, and no animal protein costing more than $1.00 a pound made it into my shopping cart. There were other times, especially overseas, when the commissary and the BX were literally the only affordable game in town, or possibly the only one where you could get corn tortillas and hot dogs that your children would actually eat… and even more times when it was just not possible to take the time to shop on the local economy… or times when the local economy was not cooperative, and that didn’t just happen overseas, either.
There were establishments in Sacramento in the 1980ies that refused to take checks from military people, and the only places that would offer terms to military people shopping for appliances and furniture were the sort which had interest rates so abusive that the base commanders were on the verge of declaring them off-limits. Sweet it was, to return to the States in the 1990ies – specifically Utah – and have cashiers there not even ask to look at my ID, if I was in uniform and writing out a check! And even sweeter to have the BX sell major appliances, when the local merchants in Sacramento had screamed bloody murder to their local politicos, when the BX had the temerity to stock microwave ovens. They apparently felt the BX had no right selling us things which we might really need, even if they themselves didn’t want to take checks from military personnel for them.
Politics sometimes affected the commissary, too: for a number of years they stocked Department of Ag surplus cheddar, at 50 cents a pound and damn good cheese it was too; nothing beat it for mac and cheese. A prominent representative for a dairy state made a fact-finding trip to commissaries in Germany and was shocked, shocked, I tell you, to discover that German and French cheeses were on sale there – obviously, he felt that Kraft was good enough for us. Another state rep, not normally noted for his tender concern for our sensitive palates or the military in general made an enormous fuss about stocking California wines in the Class six stores in Europe… which were already stocked, thank you very much, with quite drinkable local vintages. Talk about shipping coal to Newcastle…. A couple of years on the Zaragoza AB Commissary/BX Advisory Committee left me with the feeling that military commissaries were seen in certain quarters as a means of off-loading agricultural surplus on a captive population.
All in all, the Commissary and the BX provide a good and useful service, especially overseas – but please don’t feel that you are being deprived if you don’t have those privileges. The prices can be beaten with a little research and time, and so can the choices, especially in large city. And the Texas grocery chain which has my custom, the “Huge Enormous Big-Ass Grocery” or HEB (which has run nearly all competition out of town due to it’s wide selection and excellent customer service) would never take more than a couple of weeks to begin stocking almond extract.
Another member of the advisory committee made that her crusade. It took two years. A friend of mine finally brought back six little bottles in her luggage, for those of her friends who actually baked with the stuff