Commissaries kept benefit flowing In wake of 9/11

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FORT LEE, Va. — Fifteen years ago this month, commissaries felt the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, as DeCA worked with the military to keep the grocery pipeline open.

In the wake of the attack, then DeCA Director Maj. Gen. Robert J. Courter Jr. contacted military leaders to ensure commissaries would be open to serve the troops and their families amid heightened security at bases worldwide.

“I asked installation commanders to designate commissaries as key and essential. This means store directors must work with installation commanders to keep our stores open, well-stocked and operating in an efficient manner regardless of what threat condition they are under,” Courter told DeCA employees in December 2001. “Since Sept. 11, our people have been doing just that – performing above and beyond their former pace of life.”

Across the DeCA landscape, store personnel, contractors and their industry partners near the terrorist attacks and elsewhere around the world went above and beyond to keep the commissary benefit flowing to the shelves.

“Immediately after the attacks, military installations buttoned up their security measures, creating long lines of cars as each vehicle was inspected at the gate,” said Dr. Peter Skirbunt, who wrote about DeCA’s response to Sept. 11 in The Illustrated History of American Military Commissaries. “That made it difficult for families living on base to easily leave and return, encouraging them to do all their food shopping at the commissary.

“The security measures also made it difficult for [commissary] employees, deliveries and off-post patrons to reach the stores, but given the severity of what had happened, few people complained,” Skirbunt added. DeCA’s historical accounts provide a wide range of responses by commissaries, their staffs and vendors.

While installations around the world were tightening security, commissaries like the one at Fort Myer, Virginia, the closest DeCA store to the Pentagon, responded to purchase requests for water, energy bars, soup, chips and other snacks, soft drinks, sandwiches and produce from military units at Fort Myer, Henderson Hall Marine Corps Base and the Pentagon. Store personnel delivered cases of fruit donated by industry. The Fort Myer Commissary also left a skeletal crew in the store to handle 24-hour emergency support from the installation while the store was closed to patrons Sept. 11-12.

At nearby Bolling Air Force Base, District of Columbia, the base commander tasked the commissary for emergency support for baby food, diapers and formula from the base daycare center; water, ice and Gatorade for first responders at the Pentagon; and food for the dining facility.

Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, as the home of Air Force One, had to close Sept. 11-12, as it was placed under strict security measures. While it was closed, the store director maintained an emergency crew on hand to support purchases from the base hospital, the flight kitchen and the dining facility.

At Fort Meade, Maryland, vendors donated lunches for the security personnel on the gates. This level of support was indicative of commissaries worldwide, all working with their industry partners to support various calls for assistance – collecting donations for disaster relief drives, and food for dining facilities and installation security personnel.

During the attack on the Pentagon, two members of DeCA’s Washington Office escaped injury although their physical location was not far from where the plane came through, said Skirbunt, the DeCA historian.

Although no commissary employees were lost among the thousands killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, DeCA did lose a member of its Patron Council, Retired Army Lt. Col. Gary F. Smith, who was killed along with 125 other Americans in the Pentagon. At the time of his death, Smith was the chief of Army Retirement Services, under the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel.

“We recently enjoyed the pleasure of [Smith’s] company during a Patron Council meeting at our headquarters just five days before the attack,” Courter said in a December 2001 article about Smith’s death, in DeCA’s employee magazine, Vision. “His loss puts a face on this tragedy and brings home how much this attack has affected us all.”