August 12, 2011

Military folk up in arms over commissary closing

Thousands will no longer get discounted food when the Topsham store closes Oct. 8.

By Trevor Maxwell
Staff Writer

TOPSHAM - Like thousands of other veterans and military family members in southern Maine, Gregory Dunn heard rumblings that the Brunswick-Topsham commissary would close this year along with the Brunswick Naval Air Station.

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The Commissary Store in Topsham is scheduled to close Oct. 8, to the dismay of military families who will have to go elsewhere to buy food at much higher prices.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Navy veteran Gregory Dunn, a native of Louisiana, says the Brunswick-Topsham commissary is a major reason he and his wife were able to retire in Brunswick. He worries how people on fixed incomes will cope once it’s closed.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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But he never imagined it would happen.

Dunn, who retired from the Navy in 1999 after a 20-year career, was angry after learning this week that the Department of Defense will shut down the commissary, which sells groceries and other goods to military families at deeply discounted prices.

All four members of Maine's congressional delegation have vowed to fight for a reversal of Tuesday's decision. If they are unsuccessful, the 37-year-old commissary will close Oct. 8.

"The government just put us on the chopping block and cut us off," said Dunn, a Louisiana native who fell in love with Maine while he was stationed here.

The commissary was one of the major reasons Dunn and his wife were able to retire to Brunswick. Without it, he said, people on fixed incomes will have to go to traditional supermarkets and buy less food, or go to the much smaller commissaries in Bangor and Portsmouth, N.H.

"What about the old guys in the wintertime? They've got to drive to Portsmouth just to get their food? This is just not fair," he said, standing outside the entrance of the commissary Wednesday. "Maine has sacrificed more than its share for the U.S. You have to ask yourself, what is the U.S. doing for Maine?"

Maine's congressional delegates agree, but so far they haven't had any luck convincing Defense Department officials, who hope to save about $2.1 million per year by closing the commissary.

Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, along with Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, sent letters on May 10, June 3 and July 21 to Dr. Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

They urged him to keep the Brunswick-Topsham commissary open because -- despite the long drawdown and final closure of the naval base in May -- the commissary still serves more than 10,000 active duty, National Guard and Reserve personnel, retirees and other eligible beneficiaries in the region.

The delegates have proposed making it an "enhanced commissary" that would sell tobacco and alcohol without the deep discounts offered on other products. Those sales could boost profits and reduce the government's expenses for operating the commissary, the delegates have argued.

Pingree and Michaud inserted an amendment in a defense authorization bill that was passed by the House earlier this year. It would create a one-year pilot program for enhanced commissaries at Topsham and other stores around the country. Snowe and Collins are trying to get the same provision passed in the Senate this summer.

They have lobbied to keep the commissary open as those pieces of legislation are considered. They also have argued that the criteria used by the Defense Department to justify the closure were "not clear," according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Stanley never responded to their concerns, the delegates said, until he contacted them Tuesday to inform them that the commissary would close Oct. 8. The delegation issued a media release Tuesday night, blasting the Pentagon's decision.

"This is extremely disappointing news for the servicemen and women, military retirees and families who live in the Brunswick-Topsham region," Snowe said in the prepared statement. "That these patriots must lose a key resource in their community during these difficult economic times is ill-informed and inexcusable."

The delegates followed that up Wednesday with a joint letter to Stanley's boss, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, urging him to reverse the decision.

"Yesterday was the first time that we have heard from Under Secretary Stanley on this issue. This failure to respond to our requests for a dialogue on a matter of such significant importance is troubling and unacceptable," Snowe, Collins, Pingree and Michaud said in their letter to Panetta.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Elizabeth Mazzotti of Topsham says closure of the Brunswick-Topsham commissary will amount to a $4,000 to $5,000 pay cut for her husband, an Army recruiter.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


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