Commissaries honor Air Force’s 70 years of service

Commissaries honor Air Force’s 70 years of service

Seventy years ago on Sept. 18, the Army Air Forces ended and the Air Force was born.

On that date, W. Stuart Symington – formerly the Assistant Secretary of War for Air – was sworn in as the first Secretary of the Air Force. Gen. Carl A. “Toohey” Spaatz became the first Chief of Staff of the Air Force eight days later.

The Defense Commissary Agency, which this year is celebrating 150 years of the modern commissary benefit, is proud to salute the entire Air Force community on their service’s anniversary, which from the start has been served by commissaries around the world.

For those who called blue skies home, the process of becoming an independent service became law with the passage of the National Security Act of 1947 on July 26. The law created the National Military Establishment – later renamed the Department of Defense – with three branches: the Army, the Navy (which included the Marine Corps) and the newly-formed Air Force. Before then, the Army had been responsible for land-based aviation operations, while the Navy and Marine Corps controlled sea-based and amphibious aviation activities.

The Navy and Marines continued their air operations, but the Army Air Forces was disbanded, the Air Force inherited its mission and bases, and took on responsibility for long-range land-based air operations. This major reorganization of the United States’ armed forces set the tone for military strategy during the Cold War.

Along with the Army Air Forces’ runways and flight operation facilities, the Air Force inherited all sorts of additional assets, including the base commissaries. Although their stores were still supplied for a time by the Army Quartermasters, the Air Force immediately went into the commissary business. The stores proved especially important to military families living overseas with the occupying forces in Japan and Germany.

For many years, all military installations ran their own commissaries, with some assistance from the various service headquarters. In the postwar years, the Armed Forces Commissary Regulation of 1949 standardized terminology and some methodology for the commissaries of military services.

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

Following the service’s formation, Air Force base commanders were responsible for their installations’ commissaries, so the stores were a direct reflection of their personal level of interest in the benefit. Shelf stocking and commodity purchasing decisions were made at store level. There was little standardization, no uniformity, no continuity of operations and no career path for commissary workers – civilian or military.

This began to change 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 (AFCOMS) centralized guidance and control for all Air Force commissaries – 181 at the time – in one agency, headquartered at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas. AFCOMS managed Air Force commissaries until the creation of the Defense Commissary Agency, which centralized all the services’ commissaries in 1991.

Today, DeCA provides the commissary benefit for all the military services, saving individual authorized patrons thousands of dollars annually when compared with prices in civilian supermarkets.

Since 1947, millions of Americans have worn the Air Force uniform, and have established a superb record of valor, sacrifice and distinguished service during and after the Cold War, from the Korean conflict to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, 70 years later, members of the Air Force community, along with their peers in the other armed services, as well as members of the Reserve and National Guard, may shop at any of DeCA’s 238 commissaries at U.S. military installations around the world.

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