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Most commissaries not closing

WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- To soothe anxiety among service members and their families about reports of the Defense Department closing commissaries, a top Department of Defense official emphasized that the department strongly supports commissaries as an important benefit of military service.

"The future of the commissary benefit is very sound, very healthy," said John M. Molino, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy. "The department is committed to maintain a commissary benefit."

Calling recent media coverage of the commissary issue "slanted and inaccurate," Molino said DOD officials are strongly supporting the commissary benefit.

Molino said the controversy goes back three years. Shortly after arriving at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked whether the department should be running a chain of grocery stores.

"We did a detailed analysis of whether or not there were other ways to deliver the commissary benefit," Molino said. "The conclusion was that the commissary needs to stay (as) something we do within the Department of Defense, even though it is outside our core competency."

People tend to forget that DOD conducted a review and that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz concluded that the commissary is not an item for privatization, Molino said.

"The leadership of the department has told us that that the commissary issue is off the table," Molino explained. "We are now focused on good management and providing the best benefit we can. We subject the commissaries to the same customer satisfaction indexes that private sector grocery stores do."

He said the commissaries' performance is much better and customers are happier than ever before. "They're happier with the selection of the groceries, and the cleanliness and the quality of the stores," he added.

Even though DOD officials are not searching for ways to close commissaries, Molino said, realistically, there might be a location that needs to be closed.

The No. 1 priority governing keeping a commissary open is the number of active-duty people assigned, which should be at least 100, he said.

"But if you don't hit that number, it doesn't always mean we'll close the commissary," Molino said. "We look at all of the factors and weigh heavily the quality-of-life implications of closing the store."

But he quickly added that "more often than not, we leave commissaries open in isolated areas where they lose money every week. But we do that knowingly and willingly, because that's the only way the servic members can have their commissary benefit because of the rural and isolated nature of the location."

He said that the more remote a store is, the more likely it is to stay open. Since fiscal 2001, DOD officials have closed nine commissaries. Five were at bases that had closed. Four other stores were closed at places where the population fell and a newer, better commissary was nearby.

DOD officials do not want to close any commissary, but they will do so if one is draining the system to the point of affecting customer support throughout the system, Molino said.

Whenever a commissary is closed, an exchange service often steps in to fill the gap with an exchange market operation, the deputy undersecretary said. "The market provides the bread-and-milk kind of service you'd find at a convenience store," Molino explained.

Saying that there are 276 commissaries worldwide, Molino said 19 have been put on a "watch list."

"That leaves 257 that are in good shape, operating very well and are not in danger of closing," he said. "We look at every store every year."

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