Commissaries parallel Army’s proud legacy of service

The U.S. Army marked its 241st anniversary on June 14. On that date in 1775, the Continental Congress established the Army and named George Washington its commanding general. 

That same year, Congress created the Office of the Commissary General of Stores and Purchases to provide the Army’s daily rations. Officers in charge of subsistence operations were known as chief commissaries, while their staff consisted of assistant commissaries and commissary sergeants. Fifty years later, the commissariat, as it was then known, began selling food items — which at the time were also known as commissaries or commissary items — from its warehouses “at cost” to Army officers for their personal use. 

By 1841, officers could also purchase items for their families.

In 1866, Congress authorized the Army to sell goods at cost from its subsistence warehouses to officers and enlisted men alike, beginning on July 1, 1867. This was the start of the modern commissary benefit. No geographical restrictions were placed on these sales, which could take place at all Army posts, from the frontier to the East Coast. By 1868, customers could choose from an official 82-item stock list, comparable to civilian dry-goods grocery stores at the time. By contrast, commissary stock lists today include as many as 15,000 items. 

The subsistence warehouses of the 19th century 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 Cuba and the Philippines in 1898-99, then to China in 1900, Panama in 1904, and France in 1918. Since then, the stores have existed at more than 1,000 different locations, have been run by each of the armed services, 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. 

To help cover the stores’ expenses, in 1952 the Department of Defense ordered an across-the-board 2 percent surcharge; this was gradually increased until it reached the current level, 5 percent, in 1983. Funds generated by the surcharge pay for construction, renovation and maintenance of commissary structures, as well as for some supplies and equipment. 

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. 

In 1990, Congress and the Defense Department decided to consolidate the individual service systems. Army Maj. Gen. John P. Dreska was named the agency’s first director, and Fort Lee, Virginia, became home to its headquarters. The agency officially took control of 411 military commissaries and multiple related operations (such as Air Force troop support operations, and sales to U.S. Embassy personnel) on Oct. 1, 1991.

Today, DeCA provides the commissary benefit for all the military services, delivering savings approaching 30 percent when compared with prices in civilian supermarkets.

Since 1775, 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. 

Now, 241 years later, members of the Army community, along with their peers in the other armed services, may shop at any of DeCA’s 238 commissaries at U.S. military installations around the world.

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