On a weekend in early April, Staff Sgt. Ingrid Rice drove to her North Carolina Air National Guard facility in Charlotte and bought $250 worth of groceries at commissary discount prices.

After filling one shopping cart and checking out, Rice, a mother of two, returned and shopped again. She estimates that she saved at least $100 over local supermarket prices.

The hook of the story is that the Guard facility in Charlotte has no commissary. The nearest commissary is more than an hour away at Fort Jackson, S.C., and, given the distance, Rice said she never shops there.

But this month, the commissary came to Rice — and to a few thousand other reserve component members and military retirees in the Charlotte area. The commissary benefit, with prices that, on average, save 30 percent over a commercial grocer, arrived via a four-day “case lot” sale held outside the same facility where Rice’s unit, the 145th Security Force, trains.

Twenty-four truckloads of grocery products — from meats, fish and fresh produce to dishwasher detergent and diapers — began arriving on a Tuesday. By Thursday, a team of commissary employees from Fort Bragg, working with vendors and Guard unit leaders, had opened a makeshift store, mostly under tents, with eight portable checkout registers.

By Sunday, despite a weekend of steady rain, nearly 2,300 patrons had pushed through long lines to buy $250,000 in discounted goods.

“I don’t know anyone who didn’t go back twice,” said Rice. She and fellow guardsmen look forward to an even larger sales event planned here for June. This one will involve a base exchange, too, so that not only are groceries sold on site but so are items from military department stores.

Do such on-site sales boost morale?

“Absolutely,” Rice said.

That’s the goal, says Richard Page, acting director of Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA). Since November 2003, drilling Reserve and National Guard members have been authorized unlimited shopping on base. Previously their privileges were limited to their number of drill days.

But two-thirds of Guard members and almost half of drilling reservists live too far from a base to make shopping there practical. That hurdle has to be overcome, says Page, in light of the sacrifices that reserve component members are making today with frequent deployments to fight overseas and to secure the homeland.

DeCA is committed to bringing the benefit to Reserve members whenever possible. The effort now is modest, involving sales of 150 to 400 popular items at just over 100 Guard facilities and Reserve centers this year. These “case-lot” or bulk sales events are getting larger, more frequent and more festive, says Page. By 2010, the number could reach 400 sites.

A current schedule of “on-site sales” can be found online at: /guard_reserve_sales.cfm

But DeCA has more ambitious plans to help reserve component members and their families. This summer, for three on-site sales at Homestead, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., and San Luis Obispo, Calif., DeCA will test a system that allows reservists and retirees to go online and place personal orders from a list of products bundled into “club packs.”

Orders will be delivered to the reserve facility for pick up and purchase during the sale. Personal orders will not include perishable products like produce or meats, but refrigerated items will be available at the sale sites.

By the end of the year, Page says, DeCA plans a third, more aggressive step to help reserve members. The goal will be to establish an online site where military shoppers, willing to pay shipping costs, can order commissary club-pack products anytime on line for delivery to their homes.

Excluded from these orders, again, would be perishables. But for the first time, reservists and retirees living miles from bases might be able to enjoy commissary discounts, less shipping costs, on many products.

Meanwhile, Page says, DeCA teams and suppliers involved in on-site sales are hearing many favorable comments from shoppers and getting good suggestions to improve future sales. The most frequent complaint heard from shoppers, Page quips, “is that their cars were too small.”

Commissaries don’t make a profit. DeCA’s motive is simply to improve quality of life, Page says. He recalls visiting with wounded service members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in January and says, “It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Our military has paid a heavy price in this war … It makes those of us in the qualify-of-life world understand that whatever we can do for them, we need to do.”

VA tackling retro pay casesBy May 31, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service will complete its review of 133,000 original case files of disabled retirees who potentially were due back payments under two “concurrent receipt” programs Congress approved in 2003 and 2004.

To date, DFAS and the Department of Veterans Affairs have paid a combined $308 million in back payments to military retirees with disabilities. This VA Retro Pay program was set up two years ago to calculate amounts mistakenly withheld from retirees as they began receiving either Combat-Related Special Compensation or Concurrent Retirement and Disability Pay.

Lee Krushinski, DFAS’ director of operations, said 22,500 cases remain to be completed and retro payments calculated and paid. The number of contractors hired and trained to work the files has climbed from 51 to 233 since December, Krushinski said.

To comment, e-mail, write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111 or visit:

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 Now