HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Commissaries honor Army’s 247 years of service
NOTE: To see a DeCA video tribute to the Army’s 247th birthday, click here.
FORT LEE, Va. – When the Continental Army was created on June 14, 1775, the roots of the commissary benefit were laid two days later.
After the Continental Congress established the Army and appointed Gen. George Washington as its first commanding general, they went on to create the Commissary General of Stores & Provisions and named Joseph Trumbull as the first commissary general of provisions.
Today, the Department of Defense (DOD) recognizes the commissary benefit as mission critical, and throughout the years it has gained the admiration and gratitude of soldiers and their families, said Marine Sgt. Maj. Michael R. Saucedo, senior enlisted advisor to the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) director.
“At DeCA we salute the Army’s 247 years of service by delivering a commissary benefit that provides valuable savings to soldiers, retirees and family members,” Saucedo said. “In these inflationary times, the benefit’s savings are needed more than ever before. Many of our young service families simply could not make ends meet each month without their commissary.”
Upon his appointment in 1775, Trumbull immediately began provisioning the Army with a daily ration that consisted of three-quarters of a pound of pork or 1 pound of beef; 1 pound of bread or flour; 3 pints of beer or spruce beer; a pint of milk; a half pint of rice; 6 ounces of butter; and 3 pints of beans or peas. The weekly ration for each regiment included 9 gallons of molasses; 2 gallons of vinegar; 3 pounds of sugar and a half pint of rum. Soldiers who were sick were to be provisioned at the discretion of the regimental physician.
During the American Revolution, traveling merchants known as sutlers followed the troops and set up “shop” in their encampments where they sold items that didn’t appear in the rations including fresh fruit, baked pies and pastries, tobacco, jams and preserves and, in some instances, even beer and liquor. However, most of the food they sold was exorbitantly overpriced and sometimes not fit for consumption. Trumbull became concerned when several of the Continental soldiers became indebted to the sutlers.
In 1825, Army officers were allowed to purchase goods at Subsistence Department warehouses, and by 1841 they were granted permission to purchase goods for their families.
When the Civil War began in 1861, sutlers were seen as attempting to make a profit off the war and taking advantage of the soldiers. Sutlers continued to sell goods to the Union soldiers, offering a wide variety that were not normally found in daily rations, but at a high cost. They sold canned fruits and milk, medicine, tobacco, preserves and jellies, fresh-baked goods and many things the soldiers craved.
A Union private’s salary during the war was around $13 per month, and if they owed money to the sutlers, the salesmen arrived on payday to collect. Most of the Confederate soldiers relied upon the generosity of the local townfolk or care packages sent from home because the sutlers stopped following them shortly after the war began.
On July 1, 1867, Congress authorized subsistence warehouses to begin selling their goods to enlisted men. By 1868, the typical commissary subsistence store carried a stock list of around 82 items. It was comparable to what could be found in modern dry goods stores of the time.
By the 1900s, the subsistence warehouses were replaced with U.S. Army-run sales commissaries. The first overseas stores opened in the Philippines and China in 1899 and 1900, respectively. They were followed by stores in Panama and the Caribbean in 1904, and in France in 1918.
Other military services began adopting the Army’s concept of commissary operations, but they tailored their own stores to meet their customers’ needs. Commissaries always were especially important to the quality of life of troops and their family members living overseas.
By the end of World War II, each of the military services had their own commissary operations: The Army’s Troop Support Agency (TSA), the Navy Resale Support Office (NAVRESSO), the Marine Corps Services Command and Air Force Commissary Service (AFCOMS). The U.S. Coast Guard operated some smaller stores located inside their exchanges.
In 1952, the Department of Defense (DOD) ordered an across-the-board 2 percent surcharge to help cover stores’ expenses; this rate gradually increased until it reached the current level of 5 percent in 1983. The funds generated by this surcharge pay for the construction, maintenance and renovation of commissary stores, as well as equipment and supplies.
In 1989, Congress directed DOD to study the efficiency of operating separate military commissary systems. The study recommended that all of the separate systems be combined under one agency to improve customer service and save money. This led to the Defense Commissary Agency being established on May 15, 1990, with Army Maj. Gen. John P. Dreska as DeCA’s first director. On Oct. 1, 1991, DeCA officially assumed control of all U.S. military commissaries worldwide.
Today, commissaries continue to save soldiers and their families thousands of dollars annually on their purchases in comparison to similar products at commercial stores.
“As the Army continues to build on its legacy, we are committed to being THE grocery provider of choice for them and all our eligible patrons – active duty service members, reservists, retirees, disabled veterans and family members – delivering a vital benefit exclusively for our military community,” Saucedo said. “We will provide value and convenience, while delivering superior customer service and the items our patrons want at the best possible savings.”
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.