updates for veterans
Millions More Vets and Caregivers Are About to Get Commissary, Exchange Access
Starting Jan. 1, 2020, Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war and all service-connected disabled veterans, regardless of rating, as well as caregivers enrolled in the VA's Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program, will be able to shop at Defense Commissary Agency stores and military exchanges. Julie Mitchell/AAFES
20 Sep 2019
Military.com | By Patricia Kime
The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are gearing up for what will be the largest expansion of patrons to the military commissary system and exchanges in 65 years, making sure that shoppers will be able to get on base and find the shelves fully stocked.
Starting Jan. 1, Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war and all service-connected disabled veterans, regardless of rating, as well as caregivers enrolled in the VA's Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program, will be able to shop at Defense Commissary Agency stores and military exchanges.
They also will have access to revenue-generating Morale, Recreation and Welfare amenities, such as golf courses, recreation areas, theaters, bowling alleys, campgrounds and lodging facilities that are operated by MWR.
Facilities such as fitness centers that receive funding from the Defense Department budget are not included.
At commissaries, however, there will be an added cost for new patrons who use a credit or debit card to pay for their groceries, in addition to the 5% surcharge commissary patrons already pay.
DoD officials told Military.com on Wednesday that an estimated 3.5 million new patrons will be eligible to shop. However, after analyzing store locations and their proximity to where veterans live, they expect that slightly more than a quarter of those patrons, or 800,000 people, will take advantage of the benefit.
According to Barry Patrick, associate director of MWR and Resale Policy in the Office of the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness, the DoD expects veterans in high-cost areas like Guam, Alaska, Hawaii and parts of California to take advantage of the benefit. Stores in states or cities with large populations of service-connected disabled veterans, including Florida, California, parts of Texas and Washington, D.C., may also see an increase in customers.
"Through this data analytics tool that we've developed, we've been able to provide the services and the resale organizations information ... to ensure that [they] can adjust," Patrick said. "We are working with distributors to ensure that the supply chain is adjusted accordingly, based on high-impact projections, and that the supply chain is also prepared for rapid, agile reaction to any unexpected situation."
In addition to ironing out the supply chain concerns, Pentagon officials also have been working to guarantee that the new patrons can get to the stores, which often are located on secure military installations, and will be able to make purchases.
The details have required a joint effort for much of the past year between the DoD and the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and Treasury. Homeland Security is involved because Coast Guard Exchanges are part of the deal, and Treasury plays a role, because it is responsible for ensuring that new patrons pay a fee for credit and debit card purchases at the commissaries.
Since most new patrons lack the credentials needed to get on military bases, installations will accept the Veteran Health Identification card, or VHID, from disabled and other eligible veterans. For caregivers, the VA plans to issue a memo to eligible shoppers in the coming months, which will be used in conjunction with any picture identification that meets REAL ID Act security requirements, such as a compliant state driver's license or passport.
Justin Hall, director of the MWR and Resale Policy in the Office of the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness, said that, after Jan. 1, newly eligible patrons should go to the visitors' center at the base where they plan to do most of their shopping to register their credentials. Thereafter, they will be able to access the base in the same way as CAC and DoD ID card patrons.
According to Hall and Patrick, store computers and registers are being tweaked to scan VHID cards, and employees are being trained on identifying the new patrons.
The most significant difference mandated in the law that created the benefit, the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, is that the new customers must pay a fee if they use a credit or debit card at the commissaries. By law, the stores, which receive funding from the Defense Department budget, are not allowed to cover the extra cost of the new users' card convenience fees.
The initial fee for commercial credit cards will be 1.9%; for debit cards, it will be 0.5%. Patrons can avoid the card fees by paying by cash or check, or by using the Military Star card, a credit card offered by the military resale system, which they will be eligible to apply for beginning Jan. 1.
The card fees will apply only to the new patrons.
The Defense Department is preparing a fact sheet that will contain information on how veterans can get a VHID card if they don't already have one and how caregivers can obtain the memo they need to access the benefit.
MWR and Resale Policy officials said they also will launch an information campaign to alert service-connected disabled veterans of this new benefit.
"Everybody I've talked to is excited," Hall said. "We're really hoping to get the word out so veterans will learn about the opportunities."
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Troops’ 2020 pay raise is safe, despite dire talk from lawmakers
By: Leo Shane III October 31
Service members are scheduled to receive a 3.1 percent pay raise starting on Jan. 1, 2020. (Master Sgt. Matt Hecht/Air National Guard)
A 3.1 percent military pay raise is set to take effect on Jan. 1, regardless what lawmakers say about the ongoing budget fights on Capitol Hill.
On Thursday, Senate Democratic leaders blasted Republican colleagues for misleading military members about their future paychecks, assuring troops that their annual salary boost is safe. In fact, the pay increase for troops is set to go into effect in two months unless Congress or the president intervenes, both unlikely scenarios.
“Republicans are so desperate to divert attention … that they come up with completely false arguments like the fact that if we don’t pass (an appropriations bill), the troops won’t get a pay raise,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in an angry floor speech ahead of a procedural budget vote.
Next year's pay raise isn't the first in a decade, and it won't be a 10 percent increase, despite what the president told troops.
By: Leo Shane III
Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said under federal statute, the pay raise is automatically set based on federal formulas of anticipated civilian sector wage growth.
Lawmakers reinforce that number — or suggest another figure — in their annual defense appropriations and authorization bills, both of which have been stalled for months in Congress. But Harrison said unless changes are made to the figure, neither are critical.
“If you want it higher or lower, you need to pass a separate bill,” he said. “So you don’t need an authorization bill or an appropriations bill for it. The pay raise is safe.”
For junior enlisted troops, a 3.1 percent pay raise would amount to roughly $815 more a year in pay. For senior enlisted and junior officers, the hike equals about $1,500 more. An O-4 with 12 years service would see more than $2,800 extra next year under the increase.
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In the past, including three consecutive years under former President Barack Obama, military officials have pushed lawmakers and the White House to back smaller-than-scheduled pay raises in order to save money for other defense priorities, like equipment modernization and reset.
But President Donald Trump has expressed support for the 3.1 percent raise for 2020 and has not made any public plans about trying to block the raise. The pay raise, which will be the largest in a decade, has been a point of pride in recent events with troops and veterans audiences.
Similarly, both Republicans and Democrats have offered strong support for the raise throughout the year, and none have offered legislation to block it.
But the pay raise has been cited frequently as a potential casualty of the current budget impasse on Capitol Hill, as party leaders spar over issues related to Trump’s southern border wall project and the ongoing impeachment hearings into his withholding of foriegn aid to Ukraine.
Just moments before Schumer’s remarks, across the capitol, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., blasted his chamber’s Democrats for putting the ongoing impeachment proceedings ahead of finalizing military funding legislation, invoking the military pay fears.
“We don't have a bill to formally pay our troops and make sure they have the tools they need to defend this country, because there's so much an infatuation with impeachment,” he said.
Earlier, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., complained that “pay increases for our troops and disaster recovery funds are at a stalemate” because of the budget impasse. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused Democrats of being more interested in “picking fights with the White House” than helping troops.
The 3.1 percent increase is the largest since 2010.
By: Leo Shane III, Tara Copp
But Schumer attacks those comments as disingenuous and misleading.
“My Republican friends in Congress should stick to the facts, quit the partisan theatrics, quit the politics of blame, and quit trying to harm very serious patriots whose lives and safety might be in danger,” he said.
A host of specialty pays such as re-enlistment bonuses and certain overseas deployment salary boosts are dependent on annual congressional reauthorization. And Pentagon officials have noted that without a new budget deal for fiscal 2020, the cost of the military pay raises will put extra pressure on Defense Department spending accounts.
About Leo Shane III
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.