Support our mission
Jennifer Gruenberg checks an I.D. card at Ramstein’s Base Exchange checkout line Friday. Concerns have been raised over unauthorized usage of the Army Air Force Exchange Service and Defense Commissary Agency stores by local nationals. Even though it is prohibited to purchase items for local nationals, policy was changed in 2000 allowing authorized members to bring friends into the stores to look around.

Jennifer Gruenberg checks an I.D. card at Ramstein’s Base Exchange checkout line Friday. Concerns have been raised over unauthorized usage of the Army Air Force Exchange Service and Defense Commissary Agency stores by local nationals. Even though it is prohibited to purchase items for local nationals, policy was changed in 2000 allowing authorized members to bring friends into the stores to look around. (Ben Bloker / S&S)

In March, they wouldn’t let Prince Harry buy an iPod.

But in June, they were accused of letting all sorts of unauthorized Germans shop unchallenged.

U.S. Army Europe’s post exchanges and commissaries took a hit last week on this newspaper’s Letters to the Editor page, after numerous readers wrote in complaining about too many Germans in their stores, whom, the readers seemed to assume, were not authorized to be there.

“I am tired of seeing the local nationals coming on base and stocking up on certain things, knowing they will sell it off base,” one woman wrote from Spangdahlem.

“When I go into the commissary and not one person in the aisles speaks English, I can’t help but get mad, and I have to admit that in some small way it does affect how I feel about the German population,” a civilian wrote from Hanau.

Both the Army and Air Force Exchange Service and the Defense Commissary Agency last week denied any widespread abuse, saying they follow policies set out by the Defense Department in checking IDs to ensure only ID card holders are purchasing their goods. They also pointed out that thousands of American soldiers and civilians are married to German women, who are equally entitled to commissary and post exchange shopping.

“The most important thing is don’t assume they are illegal shoppers,” Gerri Young, DeCA spokeswoman said. “That’s a very bad assumption.”

“AAFES serves those people the command tells us to serve,” said Lt. Col. David Konop, AAFES spokesman. “I haven’t seen (what the letter writers) said was happening. I don’t want to say it’s impossible. But I know our cashiers are asking for identification.”

Although the rules can vary under SOFA agreements with various countries, for the most part, legal customers of the duty-free goods at exchanges and commissaries are: U.S. military personnel and their families; U.S. civilian overseas government workers and their families; reservists on active duty; NATO soldiers and their families; retirees living in Germany and retirees from the U.S. visiting for more than 30 days. (Retirees must first get customs paperwork.) One base in Italy, Young said, allows Italian police as well.

In March, AAFES seemed to prove its point. Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne along with a contingent of British troops, made an unannounced visit to the exchange at Lakenheath Air Base, England. The prince was reportedly again third in line, hoping to buy an iPod, when his friend already at the register was told that without a proper American identification card, there could be no purchase.

The Brits trooped off without incident, Konop told the press at the time.

Konop went on to say that if they had known the prince was coming, they could have asked the base commander to grant an exception, which base commanders can do for anyone.

Access to commissaries and post exchanges have broadened considerably since January 2000, when a Defense Department directive lifted a ban on visitors accompanied by an ID card holder. The idea was to make the facilities more friendly. “So if your parents were elderly and it was 95-degrees outside, they wouldn’t have to wait in the car,” Young said.

That means that at most U.S. bases throughout Europe, ID card holders can bring friends, cousins, and landlords into the store, whether IDs are checked at the door or at the register. The visitors can look and touch — but they’re still not allowed to buy.

“We check IDs of people paying for the purchase,” said Gayle McGrath, Heidelberg commissary acting administrator. “If a customer brings in a German friend, we’re not the police. We don’t say are you shopping for this German?”

On occasion, a German accompanying an American has tried to pay for the purchase, McGrath said, and she has told them that it’s impermissible. “When it’s so obvious it’s happening, you must stop it,” McGrath said.

The commissary said it routinely gets complaints about unauthorized shopping, even without the presence of Germans. “I had one lady say the other day, ‘I know that guy. He lives upstairs from me, and I know he’s buying for his German landlord,’” McGrath said.

According to a military law Web site, authorized users are prohibited from buying items for unauthorized users or buying items to resell. Those that do are subject to losing their own privileges, according to the Web site, and, if a military member, possible prosecution under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice.

If people have valid concerns, McGrath said, they should call military police.

There are some U.S. Army Europe bases which still do not allow visitors of ID card holders to enter the store, based on security concerns and at the base commander’s discretion, Young said. One is in Cairo, which is part of an embassy, another is in Turkey. A visitor to the Rota, Spain, commissary must first visit the commander and security for permission to enter; and in Naples, only visitors bearing U.S. passports may enter.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
twitter Email

Stripes in 7



around the web


Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up