FORT LEE, Va. – On Oct. 1, 1991, the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) officially took over the responsibility of providing the commissary benefit to U.S. military members and their families.
As the agency enters its 30th year, DeCA Director and CEO Bill Moore applauded the agency’s legacy of service.
“When you think about the enormity of forming this agency you cannot escape the tremendous investment Congress made in DeCA to serve the greatest customers in the world,” Moore said. “Today, that legacy of service drives us to be the military’s grocery provider of choice, reaffirming our commitment to deliver the commissary benefit to as many eligible patrons as possible at the best possible savings directed by Congress.”
The commissary benefit began in earnest in 1775 when the Continental Congress established the Office of the Commissary General of Stores and Purchases in order to provide the Continental Army with their daily rations. Officers who were put in charge of subsistence operations were called chief commissaries and their staff members consisted of assistant commissaries and commissary sergeants.
In 1825, Army officers at specific posts were allowed to make purchases for their personal use, paying at-cost prices. By 1841, they were also allowed to purchase goods for their immediate families.
It wasn’t until 1867, when Army enlisted men were afforded the same at-cost purchasing privileges that had already been enjoyed by officers for over 40 years. At the time, any commissary warehouse on any Army post could become a sales location, regardless of whether they were located in a large city or on the frontier.
Initially, commissaries were very small and customers handed a list to a clerk behind the counter who filled the list for them. By the 1930s many commissaries were being run in the same fashion as civilian grocery stores. During those days some commissaries were even offering home delivery service for families residing on post. There was a 12-item limit for home deliveries.
During World War II, the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps helped to supply each of the armed services’ commissaries, and by 1948 each individual service ran its own commissaries with differing procedures and systems. The Army ran the Army Troop Support Agency (TSA), the Navy ran the Navy Resale System Support Officer (NAVRESSO), and the Air Force operated the Air Force Commissary Service (AFCOMS). In the early 1970s, the Marine Corps Services Commissary Branch would operate their stores.
In 1989, after decades of separate services running commissaries, Congress directed the Department of Defense (DOD) to conduct a study of the separate military commissary systems under the leadership of Army Lt. Gen. Donald E. Jones. The ensuing report by the Jones Commission suggested consolidating the separate service systems into one agency to improve service and save money.
As a result, the Defense Commissary Agency was established on May 15, 1990, by a memorandum from the Deputy Secretary of Defense. Army Maj. Gen. John P. Dreska was named DeCA’s first director in June 1990.
On Sept. 27, 1991, both the U.S. Troop Support Agency (TSA) at Fort Lee, Virginia, and the Air Force Commissary Service (AFCOMS) at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, held deactivation ceremonies. The Navy Resale Services Support Office (NAVRESSO) gave up its commissary functions and became the Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM.)
Three days later on Sept. 30, the DeCA activation and building dedication ceremony took place at its new headquarters on Fort Lee – though the activation wasn’t official until Oct. 1 at which time DeCA assumed full control of all military commissaries.
The Defense Commissary Agency has served the military community through some trying times, including the worst pandemic in a century that struck in late 2019.
By March of 2020, people were being ordered to quarantine at home and businesses and restaurants closed their doors. But, commissaries remained open and would eventually be designated mission-critical to DOD’s pandemic response. Early in the pandemic, shoppers rushed to their commissaries for essential items; in fact, the largest sales day in the history of the agency occurred on March 13, 2020.
With the passage of time comes change. Much of what was done in 1991 has been improved over time as DeCA embraces new and emerging methods and technologies.
Commissaries today boast conveniences like internet ordering/curbside pickup services, self-checkouts, digital coupons, dietitian-approved resources to identify healthy foods, sushi bars, hot foods, deli-bakeries, credit and debit card acceptance, gift certificates and much more. The ongoing evolution of the commissary business model with variable pricing has made store brand items possible.
“I am immensely proud to acknowledge our 30th anniversary, a milestone that recognizes the hard work of our agency employees and the significance of the benefit to the military community,” Moore said. “Although we continue to offer significant savings, our customers deserve more and we are dedicated to providing that through clean, safe stores, healthy options and great customer service. Most importantly, we are making shopping the commissary easier and more convenient. I am thrilled about the future of the commissary benefit.”
In Hawaii, authorized patrons have four commissaries they can shop at:
- Marine Corps Base Hawaii Kaneohe
- Pearl Harbor (at the NEX)
- Schofield Barracks
About DeCA: The Defense Commissary Agency operates a worldwide chain of commissaries providing groceries to military personnel, retirees and their families in a safe and secure shopping environment. Commissaries provide a military benefit, saving authorized patrons thousands of dollars annually on their purchases compared to similar products at commercial retailers. The discounted prices include a 5-percent surcharge, which covers the costs of building new commissaries and modernizing existing ones. A core military family support element, and a valued part of military pay and benefits, commissaries contribute to family readiness, enhance the quality of life for America’s military and their families, and help recruit and retain the best and brightest men and women to serve their country.