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Plan to shut military supermarkets shows difficulty of cutting defense spending

(WASHINGTON POST)   Motion sensors and razor-wire coils ring the ammunition depot on this vast Marine Corps base. Sentries stand watch in the lobby of the headquarters complex. Military police officers patrol the barracks every few hours. But no building here boasts the defenses of the giant, government-run supermarket, whose bright, wide aisles are stocked with seemingly every brand of every food product available in America — Heinz ketchup, Oscar Mayer bacon, Lay’s chips — all sold at close to wholesale prices.

The cost of ordering the goods, filling the shelves and checking out customers is all borne by the American taxpayer.

Three summers ago, Richard V. Spencer, a retired investment banker who serves on a Pentagon advisory board, proposed shutting down the commissary at Camp Lejeune and every other domestic military base, a step that would save taxpayers about $1 billion a year.

He called several large retailers to see if they would be willing to take over the markets. None were, but Wal-Mart, which has stores within 10 miles of most U.S. bases, proposed offering equivalent discounts to troops, their spouses and their retired brethren. He figured other national chains would follow suit.

When the Defense Department bureaucracy that runs the commissaries learned of Spencer’s plan, it sounded an alarm among allies in industry and in Congress. A trade group whose mission is to represent companies that sell goods in military stores fired off a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, warning him it would be “ill-advised” to make major changes. Senators and representatives dispatched similar missives. So did veterans groups. As the correspondence stacked up in his inbox, Gates summoned Spencer and other members of the Defense Business Board.

“Richard, my fax machine is vomiting letters of complaint,” Spencer recalled Gates telling him. Worried that congressional anger would doom other Pentagon cost-cutting initiatives, Gates told Spencer to drop his commissary plan.

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