By Dr. Peter D. Skirbunt, DeCA historian
The U.S. Army marks its 233rd anniversary June 14. On that date in 1775, the Continental Congress established the Army and named George Washington its commanding general. Since then, millions of Americans have worn the Army uniform and established a superb record of valor, sacrifice and distinguished service in conflicts from the American Revolution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because even the world’s finest soldiers can be hampered by hunger, food has played a crucial role in military operations. In the Army’s early years, soldiers who were tired of – or unable to get – official rations could buy additional goods from civilian vendors known as “sutlers.” While these merchants provided a valuable service, many charged exorbitant prices or sold goods of dubious quality. Because such abuses became commonplace during the Civil War, Congress subsequently allowed soldiers of all ranks to purchase non-ration items from Army subsistence warehouses “at cost.”
These warehouses with makeshift sales counters were gradually replaced by Army-run grocery stores called “sales commissaries,” which sold items at cost, providing soldiers good food at reasonable prices. When the Army’s mission expanded around the world, commissaries followed, first to the Philippines in 1899, then to China (Peking) in 1900, Panama in 1904, and France in 1918. The stores have existed at more than 900 different locations, on every continent except Antarctica.
While commissaries were originally created for active-duty Army personnel, they gradually were made available to members of every armed service, military retirees, and the immediate family members of all authorized shoppers. Commissaries proved especially important to military families living overseas.
The stores’ importance increased with the creation of the all-volunteer military in 1973, and again after the Reserve and National Guard were granted full-time shopping privileges in 2003.
Today, the Defense Commissary Agency provides the commissary benefit for all the military services, delivering savings of 30 percent or more when compared with prices in civilian supermarkets.
Members of the Army community, along with their peers in the other armed services, may shop at any of DeCA’s more than 250 commissaries at U.S. military installations around the world.
About DeCA: The Defense Commissary Agency operates a worldwide chain of commissaries providing groceries to military personnel, retirees and their families in a safe and secure shopping environment. Authorized patrons purchase items at cost plus a 5-percent surcharge, which covers the costs of building new commissaries and modernizing existing ones. Shoppers save an average of more than 30 percent on their purchases compared to commercial prices – savings worth about $3,000 annually for a family of four. A core military family support element, and a valued part of military pay and benefits, commissaries contribute to family readiness, enhance the quality of life for America’s military and their families, and help recruit and retain the best and brightest men and women to serve their country.