Expanded Commissary & Exchange Privileges for Veterans

Updated: October 13, 2022
In this Article

    As of Jan. 1, 2020 all service-connected disabled Veterans, Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war (POW), and individuals designated as the primary family caregivers of eligible Veterans under the VAs Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) can present their VHIC to gain entry to DoD and Coast Guard installations and some commissary stores; and at point of sale at commissaries, exchanges (AAFES, NEXCOM, MCX and CGX) and MWR retail activities to complete their transactions.

    Veteran Online Exchange Access: All honorably discharged veterans, including Reserves, are eligible to register online and shop at the online exchanges. All newly included customer groups may also create online accounts for the MyCommissary portal to register for the Commissary Rewards Card and access available sale flyers and services.  

    This is a big change from how such operations were run in the past. At one time those who did not retire from the military generally didn’t have access to on-base resources like these after leaving the service. Such access was reserved for retirees (see below).

    Of all the perks of being a member of the United States military, or being in a military family, access to base facilities such as the commissary or base exchange / post exchange and exchange stores operated is one of the best with tax-free shopping and added discounts for those shopping on-post.

    These benefits go a long way toward helping military families, especially lower-ranking enlisted troops who may have more debt and need more assistance financially depending on their duty location, family size, and other factors.

    Why Expanded Access Is A Big Deal

    As mentioned above, shopping on base is a tax-free experience. There are also deals, discounts, and special offers for goods and services on-base via the exchange, the commissary, or other on-base retail outlets you may not find in the local community.

    Shopping at base commissaries for important food staples can be a money-saving experience some military families come to depend on. Some shoppers and military websites claim savings as high as 30% over civilian grocery chains.

    For a long time, such access was restricted to active duty military members and their families, and all others who had valid, current military ID and were authorized access to the base, post, or installation. Access to on-base exchange facilities, the commissary, and other retail outlets was also allowed for all military retirees.

    However, no access was permitted to those who separated from military service without retiring. This lack of access has been accepted with varying degrees of frustration in the world of servicemembers transitioning to the civilian world.

    But in the 21st century some of the old restrictions are being eliminated in favor of expanded access for Purple Heart recipients, those with service-connected disabilities, former prisoners of war, and even caregivers of veterans.

    Jan. 1, 2020 and the expanded access for veterans means potential savings and much more.

    How Does Expanded Access Work?

    On Jan. 1, 2020, military bases were authorized to allow access to the following groups who previously were not allowed to shop at DeCA, exchanges, and certain recreational facilities on base operated by the agency known to military families as Morale, Welfare, and Recreation:

    • Purple Heart recipients
    • Former prisoners of war
    • All service-connected disabled veterans regardless of rating
    • Caregivers enrolled in the VA’s Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) program

    This expanded access may include the following areas depending on the mission, the base, and other variables:

    • MWR-run on-base golf courses
    • On-base recreation areas
    • On-post movie theaters
    • On-base bowling alleys
    • MWR campgrounds and lodging facilities
    • Commissaries
    • Military service exchanges including Coast Guard
    • Golf courses
    • Bowling centers
    • Recreational lodging
    • RV campgrounds
    • Movie theaters
    • And more!

    Required Identification

    Veterans need a Veterans Health Identification Card (VHIC) for in-person Commissary, Military Exchange, MWR access.

    Veterans

    • On Jan. 1, Veterans eligible solely under this act who are eligible to obtain a Veteran Health Identification Card must use this credential for in-person installation and privilege access. The card must display the Veteran’s eligibility status (i.e., PURPLE HEART, FORMER POW or SERVICE CONNECTED). Here is how to get a Veterans Health Identification Card (VHIC).
    • Veterans eligible solely under this act who are not enrolled in or are not eligible to enroll in VA health care, or who are enrolled in VA health care, but do not possess a Veteran Health Identification Card will not have access to DoD and Coast Guard installations for in-person commissary, exchange, and MWR retail privileges, but will have full access to online exchanges and American Forces Travel.
    • Medal of Honor recipients and Veterans with 100% service-connected disability ratings are eligible for DoD credentials under DoD policy.

    Caregivers

    • Eligible caregivers will receive an eligibility letter from VA’s Office of Community Care.
    • If you are a primary family caregiver under the PCAFC and lose your eligibility letter, please call 1-877-733-7927 to request a replacement.  Please allow two weeks for processing.

    First Installation Visit

    Eligible Veterans and caregivers must stop at the visitor control center upon the first visit to an installation. Depending on the type of installation, Veterans may enroll for recurring access, which would allow them to proceed to the gate for entry upon subsequent visits without having to stop again at the visitor control center.

    As with all other individuals seeking access to DoD installations, all eligible Veterans must pass a basic on-the-spot background check prior to enrolling, and an automated check each time they enter the installation.  Veterans with felony convictions, felony arrest warrants, or other types of derogatory information related to criminal history or terrorism will not be permitted entry.

    The Fine Print

    Some of this expanded access comes at a small price. Those shopping at base commissaries with expanded access are required to pay a small surcharge for credit or debit card use in addition to a 5% surcharge. Not all facilities will charge more for expanded access, but DeCa-run commissaries definitely do.

    Who Benefits The Most From Expanded Commissary And Exchange Access

    Those who reap the biggest benefits from expanded shopping options on base? Most likely those who serve in high-cost areas such as New York, California, Oregon, and Washington D.C. just to name a few. The higher the cost of living in a given area, the most important reduced-cost and tax-free shopping becomes to military families.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Q: Can I bring a spouse/friend/guest?
    A. Yes, but all guests must go through the required vetting at the visitor control center and must remain with the sponsor at all times.
    Veterans and caregivers should know that while they can bring guests onto the installation and into the facilities, those guests will have to stop at visitor control and go through the required access steps, which includes providing acceptable proof of identity (e.g., REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or U.S. passport) and undergoing a quick basic background check. If the guest shows up without the proper ID, they will not be able to accompany the veteran or caregiver onto the installation.

    Q. Does this includes bases overseas?
    A. It includes installations in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the participating U.S. territories and possessions. Access at installations overseas in foreign countries is subject to status of forces agreements, international laws, and other agreements with host countries. So, for now, the answer is not all.

    Q. Can veterans access any installation or are they limited to their parent service?
    A. Veterans can access any installation regardless of their branch of service.

    Q. Does this include Class Six, gyms, golf courses?
    A. Yes to Class Six, no to gyms, yes to golf courses.

    Q: What’s the definition of a service-connected disability?
    A: A service-connected disability is an injury or illness that was incurred or aggravated during active military service, as determined by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

    Q: Will family members of the eligible veterans and caregivers also have the same privileges?
    A: No. Only eligible veterans and caregivers will have these privileges.

    Q: Can I use a Veterans Identification Card to get on an installation to access my privileges?
    A: No. The VIC is not an acceptable form of identification to facilitate installation or privilege access at Department of Defense and Coast Guard installations.

    Q: What’s the difference between a Veteran Identification Card and a Veteran Health Identification Card?
    A: The VIC is issued to any honorably or generally discharged veteran. The VHIC is only issued to those veterans who are enrolled in Department of Veterans Affairs health care and displays the veterans’ eligibility status on the card (e.g.,PURPLE HEART, FORMER POW, SERVICE CONNECTED).

    Q: What morale, welfare and recreation activities will these newly eligible veterans and caregivers be authorized to use?
    A: Eligible veterans and caregivers will have access to DoD and Coast Guard MWR retail activities, including: entertainment, clubs, recreational lodging/resorts, special interest activities, bowling, golf, restaurants, marinas, equipment rental, movie theaters, vehicle storage, kennels, AmericanForcesTravel.com and more. Use of MWR activities primarily funded by appropriations and child development programs are not authorized.

    Q: Why does the commissary charge a surcharge for shopping?
    A: The Defense commissary system is statutorily required to charge a five percent surcharge on all purchases to pay for commissary construction, equipment and maintenance. Even with the surcharge, patrons receive an average worldwide savings of 23.7 percent over commercial grocery store shopping.

    Q: Will newly eligible veterans and caregivers be eligible for a MILITARY STAR card?
    A: Veterans and caregivers who are eligible are also eligible to apply for a MILITARY STAR card, based on the terms of eligibility for this credit program.

    About AAFES

    Army & Air Force Exchange Service has been around since the 1800s and since that time AAFES has evolved into a service providing “tax-free shopping and military-exclusive pricing at installations worldwide” and online at the AAFES official site.

    AAFES describes itself as the “61st largest retailer in the U.S.” and the agency is regulated by a board that reports to the service secretaries for the Army and Air Force.

    Who AAFES Is For

    AAFES serves more than 30 million people, including active duty, military family members, retirees, employees of NOAA and the Public Health Service. The AAFES official site reminds users that 100% of the money raised in AAFES Base Exchange /  Post Exchange operations (four thousand facilities worldwide) go back to support the military community.

    About DeCA

    The Defense Commissary Agency operates on-base grocery stores worldwide, The modern commissary system has its roots in the earliest days of America–each branch of the military service operated its own version of a commissary from 1867 to 1991.

    In 1991, the U.S military commissary system was consolidated and designated as the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA). In the 21st century, DeCa Currently, DeCA operates more than 230 stores in 13 countries. More than 170 of those commissaries are located stateside.

    Perks Of Shopping At A Commissary

    DeCA commissaries provide “subsidized groceries and household goods at cost plus a 5% surcharge” according to the Department of Defense. This surcharge funds the maintenance and upkeep of existing DeCa operations as well as the construction of new ones.

    Written by Veteran.com Team

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