Commissaries honor Air Force’s 73 years of service
FORT LEE, Va. – Military commissaries have served airmen and their families since the Air Force’s creation 73 years ago, so it’s with pride that the Defense Commissary Agency joins with them in observing their birthday on Sept. 18.
The Air Force’s history is linked to the Army Air Forces, the aerial warfare service component of the U.S. Army during and immediately after World War II.
The Air Force’s path to becoming an independent service started when Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947 on July 26. That law gave birth to the National Military Establishment – later renamed the Department of Defense – and its three branches: the Army, the Navy (which included the Marine Corps) and the newly formed Air Force. The Air Force’s birthday dates back to Sept. 18, when W. Stuart Symington, former Assistant Secretary of War for Air, was sworn in as secretary of the newly created service.
Upon its creation, the Air Force inherited all of the Army Air Forces’ facilities and this included commissaries. These stores were a significant benefit for military families living overseas with the occupying forces in Japan and Germany.
For many years, military installations ran their own commissaries, with some assistance from the various service headquarters. Commissaries across the board finally began to standardize some terminology and methodology with the implementation of the Armed Forces Commissary Regulation of 1949.
To help fund the stores’ expenses, DOD instituted a 2-percent surcharge on purchases at all military commissaries, beginning in 1952. The surcharge gradually increased until 1983 when it reached the current level, 5 percent. Today, surcharge funds pay for some supplies and equipment, construction, renovation and maintenance of commissaries.
In the early years following the Air Force’s formation, local commanders were responsible for their bases’ commissaries. Stores made their own decisions about shelf stocking and commodity purchasing. There was little standardization, no uniformity, no continuity of operations and no career path for commissary workers – civilian or military.
Finally, in the early 1970s, policy and guidance came from the Supply Support and Services Office at Air Force Headquarters in the Pentagon, while professional assistance came from the Air Force Commissary Stores Branch in the Air Force Services Office in Philadelphia, part of the Air Force Logistics Command.
The commissary benefit’s importance in recruitment and retention increased with the creation of the all-volunteer military in 1973. In 1976, the formation of the Air Force Commissary Service centralized guidance and control for the Air Force’s 181 commissaries in one agency, headquartered at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas.
Prior to AFCOMS, all of the branch’s commissaries were initially supplied by the Army Quartermaster Corps. AFCOMS managed Air Force commissaries until the creation of the Defense Commissary Agency, which centralized all the services’ commissaries in 1991.
Today the commissary benefit remains one of the key reasons for enlisting and reenlisting in the armed forces because of its potential to provide savings of thousands of dollars each year compared to shopping in civilian grocery stores.
PHOTO CAPTION: Air Force service members and families stand in line to check out their groceries at the Ellsworth Air Force Base, Commissary, South Dakota, in May 1958. (DeCA archives)
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. Commissaries provide a military benefit, saving authorized patrons thousands of dollars annually on their purchases compared to similar products at commercial retailers. The discounted prices include a 5-percent surcharge, which covers the costs of building new commissaries and modernizing existing ones. 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.