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JERRY HICKS

Commissary Not Yet Lost Cause to Retirees

April 23, 1998|JERRY HICKS

You can win lost causes; Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper proved it, at least in the movies. Off the silver screen, however, you often just get run over by a freight train for your trouble.

Or, for some military retirees in Orange County, it may seem more like a jumbo jet.

Lost sometimes in the brouhaha over converting the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to an international airport are those who depend on its many services. Like those who want to preserve its Officers Club. Or its memorial golf course.

And now, its commissary.

It's the favorite discount supermarket for Bill Davenport of North Tustin and many other military retirees determined to save it from demolition. Trouble is, that commissary sits smack in the middle of the proposed terminal for the new airport. County supervisors approved a reuse plan Tuesday firming up details for the new airport after the Marine base closes next year. Nothing in its four volumes says build around the commissary.

But Davenport told me that you can never save anything if you don't at least try. And his group, Save the Commissary Committee, is just starting to fly.

"Records we've obtained show that 120,679 Defense Department retirement checks go to Orange County ZIP Codes," said Davenport, a retired Air Force colonel. "That commissary is important to a lot of lives here."

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The hurdles appear almost insurmountable. The Department of Defense's Force Mobilization Policy office would have to approve a change in its closure plans to spare the commissary. It has no such changes in mind. The Pentagon has told the anxious retirees that it won't even look at a proposal to spare the commissary without a recommendation from Brig. Gen. Robert Magnus, the commander at the El Toro base.

The retirees committee has sought Magnus' help. But his response has been essentially that it's out of his hands. El Toro Marine spokesman Capt. Matt Morgan told me that "the general certainly understands their concern. There's a whole myriad of problems connected with the base closing. But we've been told to shut down."

Even so, it reminds you a little of "Catch-22." The general is no doubt dealing with different Pentagon people than the retirees have been talking to.

Beyond the military obstacles, there are the county supervisors. Their plan is to level that store. They won't be happy with any federal asterisks coming along at this late date.

But Davenport gives a couple of reasons why he thinks his committee can buck such lopsided odds.

For one, support for his cause may be small in political pull, but it is steadily growing. A year ago, Davenport put an ad about the issue in a military retirees' newspaper. That brought 18 people to the first meeting, where an executive board was formed. The next meeting brought 125 people. Three weeks ago, 500 showed up. And a recent petition circulated outside the commissary brought in 5,000 signatures.

Also, Davenport says, what they're doing is not unprecedented. He got the idea after seeing hand-painted signs by a similar group trying to save the commissary at March Air Force Base in Riverside County. The base has been converted to reserve status, but the commissary has remained open.

McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento is earmarked for closure in 2001. But plans there call for continuation of the commissary. George Moses, a retired chief master sergeant from there, explains:

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"We got the guy who runs this place [the base commander] behind us. That helped us get support from county officials. Basically, we retirees just proved there was a need for it."

The Army's Ft. Ord has been converted to Cal State Monterey Bay. But the college co-exists with the commissary, which remained open after the base closed five years ago. Robert Embrey of VFW No. 811, near the old base, said the commissary was scheduled for demolition, but a retirees' letter-writing campaign turned it around.

That's what the Orange County military retirees are counting on. At their last meeting, $3,000 was gathered to go toward faxes and stationery for a letter-writing campaign.

"If they can do it other places, so can we," Davenport said.

A military commissary is like a major supermarket combined with a department store. It's open primarily just to active duty and retired military people and their dependents, plus disabled veterans. Estimates are that a family of four can save $2,000 a year by sticking with the commissary for grocery shopping alone.

But the determination of these retirees goes beyond the money they save. To them, the commissary is part of the country's promise to them.

"When these men dedicated their careers to military service, it was in exchange for certain lifetime rights," said Sheila Walters of Newport Beach, active in the Save the Commissary Committee. "Commissary privileges is one of them."

I'm not sure that promise means the government has to keep open a commissary in your own neighborhood. But they make a good point that the commissary at Camp Pendleton, 20 miles south of the county line, is hardly convenient for them.

Surprising to me, when the retirees took a survey of people shopping at the commissary, 25% who responded said they just assumed that the base's closure would not affect the commissary's future. They quickly signed the petition.

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I'm not arguing in favor of saving that commissary. But I love a good Jimmy Stewart movie. And it's always nice to see someone trying to pry open government doors that appear to be closed.

One door they might try leads to Supervisor William Steiner's office. He's pro-airport at El Toro. But he also told me he feels a moral obligation to the retirees, and that maybe something could be worked out for a commissary relocation. If the retirees committee keeps at it, maybe so.

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