The Department of Defense is expanding in-store commissary and military exchange shopping privileges as well as access to morale, welfare and recreation facilities located on U.S. military installations at the start of the new year.
With Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany being the home to commissary and exchange facilities, the base is anticipated to feel an impact.
“You have to look at it from the perspective of the veteran,” Col. Alphonso Trimble, commanding officer, MCLB Albany, said. “We look at it as an opportunity for our country to take care of our veterans by continuing to support those service members and families who have sacrificed much for a greater cause. Taking care of our veterans today helps to demonstrate to those willing to serve in the future that the nation will always value their service.”
“We are glad to have them; it is a great opportunity for us all, and we welcome them with open arms,” Trimble said.
Taking care of those who have given to the country is the main priority.
“This summarizes our motto when we say always faithful,” Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Young, sergeant major, MCLB Albany, said. “This takes care of people, dependents and caregivers while broadening our base.
“This is beneficial not just from an economic point of view, but it also increases morale. It definitely strengthens the relationship and reinforces esprit de corps for those who didn’t have access (to the facilities) before,” Young added.
Starting Jan. 1, 2020, patronage at the commissary and MCX will expand to include all veterans with service-connected disabilities, veterans who are Purple Heart recipients, veterans who are former prisoners of war and primary family caregivers for veterans who are enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.
“It provides the potential for increased business,” Craig Pruett, director, Business Operations, Marine Corps Community Services, MCLB Albany, said. “We know there is a tremendous veteran population in the Albany area, and we know that will transition into increased business. We anticipate seeing increased traffic.”
The Exchange, or MCX, at MCLB Albany is overseen by MCCS.
Pruett said MCX’s supply of certain items such as apparel, shoes and sporting goods is automatically replenished. The automated system will pick up on the increased traffic as those items move off the shelves faster, and order them for the staff to make the products available to customers.
Department of Defense officials said this expansion will extend eligibility to approximately 3.8 million new shoppers. In most locations, little to no impact is expected on current patrons -- and a low to medium impact is anticipated in areas with a high cost of living. This new privilege was specified in the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018 and is included in the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 that came into law Aug. 13, 2018.
Increased Traffic Expected
Increased traffic at MCX likely means more money coming into MCCS, which ultimately leads to a boosting in quality of life activities for active-duty Marines.
“The Exchange is definitely a profit driver on the installation,” Pruett said, “which allows MCCS to fund low- or non-revenue programs for service members and their families. For MWR recreation, there is very little funding appropriated in support of those programs. They really survive on locally-generated profits. We can refresh and recapitalize on a more frequent basis.”
Pruett said more money coming in means additional bouncy houses for the kids and kayaks could be purchased, and updates and maintenance can be performed at the Pin City Bowling Center and the Base Theater.
“We don’t want those to cease to exist,” Pruett said. “Those things contribute to the quality of life.”
Sandra Vaughn, commissary officer, MCLB Albany, said she expects a drastic boost in sales.
“We’re glad to recognize the military service of these veterans, and are proud to provide the commissary benefit to this deserving group,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn said she has already gotten phone calls from people, specifically veterans, asking about the change. The store’s staff does their ordering manually, and it is expected that the commissary will back stock on items to replenish more frequently.
The commissary staff will keep track of what items are selling faster than others by having their eyes on the shelves often.
“We don’t know the numbers, but we are expecting an uptick in business,” she said. “It will definitely be a learning experience.”
Vaughn said meat and produce products are among the items that are the most popular at the commissary.
“Fresh areas are a draw to the commissary,” she said. “Sometimes it is 30 to 40 percent lower than outside in the community.”
Vaughn is a veteran herself, so this expansion has personal meaning to her.
“It has been difficult to work in a store I couldn’t shop in,” she said. “I know what it is like to not be able to shop in an area you deserve to shop in. It means to me that these individuals are finally getting something they deserve.”
The commissary staff is also undergoing training focusing on what forms of identification can be accepted to confirm who these new patrons are.
“I think it is something we will be ready for,” Vaughn said. “They have earned it; every eligible veteran should have the ability to shop here.”
The changeover is occurring as the commissary undergoes a renovation in January, which will be done in phases. At the same time, the MCX, located next to the commissary, is also being refreshed.
Marine Corps Installations Command, via a memorandum of understanding issued Aug. 23 from the Under Secretary of Defense, tasked regions and installations to incorporate unescorted access control procedures per the John S. McCain Act. It grants specific classes of veterans and caregivers certain commissary and MWR privileges. There are also provisions to extend similar access to surviving spouses, dependent children and other next of kin access to base commissaries, exchanges and other recreational facilities.
The MCLB Albany Public Safety Division has been actively engaged in recent weeks to ensure proper authorization of new patrons as this change takes place.
A policy document issued Nov. 13 by the Pentagon states that, while veterans who hold a Veteran Health Identification Card from the Department of Veterans Affairs and caregivers registered with the VA's Comprehensive Program for Caregivers will be able to access the system as planned, all other new users will have to wait for a “Phase 2."
Paul Ellis, director, Public Safety Division, MCLB Albany, said those who are part of the first phase will be allowed in on Jan. 1 while updated orders are pending on how to onboard the remaining individuals.
Most of those coming in on “Phase 1” have been vetted since 2014, when the VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic became co-located in the Naval Branch Health Clinic at the base.
“As long as they don’t have a change in their background, we will screen them and approve them for 2020,” Sean Lamonzs, police chief, Marine Corps Police Department, MCLB Albany, added.
Caregivers or family caregivers, per the law, are permitted to use the commissary and/or MWR facilities on the same basis as a member of the armed forces entitled to retired and/or retainer pay. Surviving spouses and other family members as listed in the law serves as an amendment to Section 1126 of Title 10 U.S. Code to provide lifetime installation access to Gold Star spouses and their dependents for the purposes of memorial services, visiting grave sites and accessing survivor services they are already entitled to.
Also, at the discretion of the secretary of defense, similar access can be provided to surviving family members for the use of commissary, exchange and other recreational facilities for all remarried surviving military spouses for as long as they have surviving dependent children.
The John S. McCain Act requires the secretary of defense to establish procedures by which eligible surviving spouses may obtain unescorted access to installations to receive benefits they are entitled to. Eligible spouses may obtain unescorted access, as appropriate, to military installations to receive benefits to which the eligible surviving spouse may be entitled by law or policy.
Next of kin of a covered service member may obtain access to military installations for such purposes and under such conditions as the Secretaries jointly consider appropriate.
Valid Identification Required
The VHIC is an identification card given to veterans enrolled in VA health care. It is different from the veteran ID card issued by the VA to all veterans who apply. Caregivers will be presented a letter by the VA to certify that they qualify for access, the policy states.
In addition to that letter, they will need to present a valid form of ID to gain access. And because military installations are federal facilities, IDs must be REAL-ID compliant, it adds.
Acceptable forms of ID include:
- REAL ID-compliant driver's license issued by a state territory, possession or the District of Columbia
- REAL ID-compliant non-driver's license issued by a state, territory, possession or the District of Columbia
- Enhanced driver's license issued by a state, territory, possession or the District of Columbia
- U.S. passport or passport card
- Foreign passport bearing an unexpired immigrant or non-immigrant visa or entry stamp
- Federal personal identity verification card (when otherwise eligible)
- Transportation Worker Identification Card
Credentials not requiring further historic fitness include DOD Common Access Card, the Federal Personal Identity Verification Card, non-CAC Local or Regional DOD Credential and credentials from local/another electronic physical access control system-enabled installation with Identity Matching Engine for Security and Analysis functionality. The credentials requiring historic fitness are Uniformed Services ID, VHIC, REAL-ID compliant and/or enhanced driver’s license or state-issued ID, U.S. Passport or passport card/foreign passport bearing an unexpired stamp, TWIC and non-federal personal identity verification-interoperable card.
Veterans covered under the law need possession of a VHIC, favorable historic criminal history and enrollment in Defense Biometric Identification System. Caregivers under that section need to have possession of an unexpired REAL-ID compliant or enhanced driver’s license state ID, U.S. Passport/foreign passport or passport card, official caregiver letter endorsed by Department of Veterans Affairs, favorable background check and enrollment in DBIDS and issue card if applicable.
In Georgia, a state-issued ID does qualify as a REAL-ID. Going to MCLB Albany Visitor Control Center with the VHIC and state-issued ID can get an individual enrolled in DBIDS. Without a background check, the individual forfeits shopping privileges.
“I think the historic fitness will weed out a lot of what we have to worry about,” Lamonzs said. “It’s going to be phased, and the first phase is already here.”
Veterans who are rated as 100-percent service-connected disabled or who are Medal of Honor recipients can continue to access bases as before, using a DOD ID card issued through the ID card office, the policy states. Any individual who has been issued access credentials based upon previous guidance and have no recent pending charges or convictions will not be penalized.
“As with all other individuals seeking access to DOD installations, all eligible veterans and caregivers must pass a basic on-the-spot background check prior to enrolling and an automated check each time they enter the installation,” the policy reads. “Veterans and caregivers with felony convictions, felony arrest warrants or other types of derogatory information related to criminal history or terrorism will not be permitted entry.”
Veterans can also use a copy of their DD Form 214 member copy 4, letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs reflecting service-connected disability, favorable background check and enrollment in DBIDS. Caregivers may also use a copy of the veteran’s DD 214 member copy 4, letter from Department of Veterans Affairs reflecting service-connected disability on behalf of the service member, official endorsed medical letter on behalf of the veterans designating the individual as a caregiver and a clean background check.
Expansion of installation benefits to surviving spouses, as it relates to requirement for access, includes acceptable credentials and official letter endorsed by Department of Veterans Affairs confirming surviving spouse status, copy of veteran’s DD 214 member copy 4, letters from Department of Veterans Affairs reflecting service-connected disability on behalf of service member, a favorable background check and enrollment in DBIDS.
Those who will be permitted on base to shop as part of Phase 2 can continue to use the online exchange system, which for the U.S. Marine Corps is accessible by visiting http://www.mymcx.com. In 2018, DOD officials estimated that about 80 percent of newly-eligible shoppers will need a new identification card to be able to shop on base.
New Customers Should Expect Surcharges
In addition to the 5 percent surcharge all commissary users currently pay, new customers, including those accessing the stores with a VHIC, will have to pay a 1.9 percent fee when using a commercial credit card at the commissary and a .5 percent fee for debit cards. The law requires a user fee be applied to new eligible users authorized solely under this patronage expansion to offset the increased expense to the Department of Treasury for processing the use of commercial credit and debit cards at commissary stores associated with the patronage expansion. The fee will be determined by DeCA in consultation with the Department of Treasury.
There is no extra charge when paying by cash, check or using the credit card offered by the military resale system, the Military Star card.
An action memo from the office of James Stewart, assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, said the patronage expansion working group has been meeting weekly since January, planning the details and working through the challenges of this collaborative effort, including eligibility, installation access, credentialing, information technology, operations, user fee and communications. The working group is made up of stakeholder representatives from DOD, Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security (Coast Guard) and the Department of Treasury.
“It’s a fantastic benefit,” Pruett said. “It recognizes what veterans gave in support of their country. It allows them to support programs that give back to current uniformed personnel.”
A briefing to the Committees on Armed Forces of the Senate and House of Representatives took place on the plan to implement this provision.
"This new privilege recognizes the service and sacrifice of these veterans and those that care for them," A.T. Johnston, deputy assistant secretary of defense, Military Community and Family Policy, said in a news release. "If you or someone you know might be eligible for this privilege, share the message. Please help us welcome these veterans and caregivers home."