A retired Air Force colonel is "flabbergasted" that politicians have allowed the federal government shutdown to close the military's commissary in Collier, where thousands of families are eligible to shop for cheap groceries.
"I thought, 'Only the Pentagon and Washington, D.C. can do this,' " said Jerry Kintigh, chairman of the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Job Retention and Military Presence. "I can't believe these people in the U.S. Congress have allowed this to happen."
The commissary in question is the C.E. Kelly Support Facility. It serves active, reserve and retired military personnel in what Mr. Kintigh estimates is a 100-mile radius.
Jack Wagner, former Pennsylvania auditor general and a Marine veteran, had harsh words about the commissary closure.
"It's a disgrace that the federal government can't meet basic services to those that it has made commitments and promises to, and we're talking about people in uniform, their families that are very dependent on the commissary, and it's not available when they need it," Mr. Wagner said. "That's really an insult to those families."
An ongoing impasse in Congress resulting in the shutdown of nonessential government services led to the closure Wednesday of all commissaries in the U.S., which are staffed by federal employees. Facilities overseas remain open.
"What is not essential about milk, bananas and other things in a grocery store?" said Mr. Kintigh, 81, of Mt. Lebanon.
Commissary shoppers receive a steep savings from normal retail supermarkets of 30 percent or more, according to Kevin Robinson, spokesman for the Defense Commissary Agency, an arm of the Defense Department.
"It's a benefit that they've earned like any other benefit of service. It's a benefit we're proud to deliver to the men and women in uniform who've served their country so greatly," said Mr. Robinson, an Army retiree and himself a commissary patron.
From last October through August, there were more than 54,000 individual transactions at C.E. Kelly. On Tuesday, as the word went out that commissaries nationwide were closing, shoppers stocked up on items in preparation for the shutdown and spent nearly $31 million, more than double normal sales volume.
Mr. Kintigh, who said he has received calls about the commissary situation from numerous military members, sees the commissary as not just a benefit, but as a necessity.
"The people at the bottom of the food chain, the new people, the lower people in the military, make pathetic, sub-poverty salaries. The commissary privilege is not some kind of a bonus. It's an integral part of their compensation," Mr. Kintigh said. "You're given that because your salary is so pathetically low you couldn't afford it otherwise."
Two staff members remain on call at the Collier store to respond to alarms, check product expiration dates and remove perishable items to prevent spoiling, Mr. Robinson said. But two are not enough to run the store, he added.
"We understand their concern and we sympathize," Mr. Robinson said. "As a fellow shopper, believe me, I'm in the same boat. There's also equal frustration for our employees."
Dain Pascocello, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said the congressman is aware of the frustration felt by the families.
"Had the Senate bothered to take up the House-passed Defense appropriations bill providing funding for the commissary and not let it languish for 10 weeks, this situation could have been completely avoided and the commissary could have remained open," Mr. Pascocello said. "As it stands now, Congressman Murphy shares the frustration of local military families and veterans and is committed to working towards a resolution. He urges the Senate to take up all of the spending bills the House has sent over this past week and past months to get this country back up and running again."
In another shutdown-related development affecting the military, Gov. Tom Corbett wrote to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking for the country's furloughed National Guard military technicians to be put back to work, including 1,000 in Pennsylvania.
Jonathan D. Silver: email@example.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg.