Pentagon floats plan to close US commissaries

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The Pentagon is floating a controversial plan to close all U.S.-based commissaries in 2015 as part of a massive cost-saving effort after more than a decade of war.

The commissaries are grocery stores that offer food and other necessities at a discount to members of the military, their families and veterans. But as Congress tightens the purse strings, the stores could get caught in the budget battle.

Budget cutters say they don't yet know how much money the plan would save, but there are 178 commissaries in the United States -- and 70 overseas -- which receive a total of $1.4 billion in government funds.

The Defense Commissary Agency, responsible for administering all commissaries worldwide, says military families and retirees save an average of more than 30 percent on their grocery bills compared with those who shop at regular retail stores. The agency says those savings amount to thousands of dollars annually per family.

But families could also lose jobs if the stores close. Thirty percent of the employees at the commissaries are military spouses. The director of the Defense Commissary Agency says that they have already cut their budget by $700 million since 1993.

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    Other military services -- including the Pentagon Channel and Stars and Stripes newspaper -- may also face cuts, along with Armed Forces Radio and Television, which broadcasts football games and news for service members overseas. Stars and Stripes, an independently edited military newspaper, has been around since the Civil War and has over 200,000 daily readers. It collects just $7.8 million a year in government subsidies. To put this number in perspective, the U.S. spent $135 million in fuel for the Afghan military this year -- part of the $4 billion the nation budgeted to support the entire Afghan military this year.

    Defense officials say none of these cuts have been made yet and no final decision has been reached.  But, according to Pentagon Spokesman Col. Steve Warren, "everything has to be on the table."

    Still, Warren said: "No commissaries have closed. No commissaries are about to close. As with every other program that's out there, we're taking a look at how we can save money. We're just taking a look. No one's decided to do anything."

    Any cuts to military benefits would ultimately have to be approved and passed by Congress.

    Patrons offered mixed opinions about the proposed changes.

    Officials at Joint Base Myer Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va., would not allow Fox News to interview shoppers at the on-post commissary, but passersby spoke to Fox News outside the Pentagon.

    "I definitely think it's a bad thing to take away the commissaries, because that's a benefit that a lot of soldiers and family members utilize." said Sgt Major Steven Scott. Scott said it's not only about lower costs, but it's also a matter of convenience for families who are able to shop on post.

    Others who take advantage of the benefit, like Joseph Shubert, say it's a better option for cutting than some of the alternatives.

    "I don't like it, but I understand that choices have to be made," Shubert said. "So, if it's this or, say, cutting our retirement paychecks or things like that, you know one way or another I think this is one of the least bad options."