Military families call Topsham commissary closure ‘disgusting’ and ‘sad’

Posted Oct. 08, 2011, at 2:55 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 09, 2011, at 10:57 p.m.
Commissary store bagger Holly Christopher (left) helps Jack and Sandy Davidson with their bags on Wednesday as they shop at the Topsham store for the last time. The store closes Saturday, Oct. 8.
Troy R. Bennett | The Times Record
Commissary store bagger Holly Christopher (left) helps Jack and Sandy Davidson with their bags on Wednesday as they shop at the Topsham store for the last time. The store closes Saturday, Oct. 8.

TOPSHAM, Maine — On Wednesday, three days before the local commissary is due to close, retired Marine Don Durkin pulled into the parking lot to shop for groceries one last time.

He has come every week for years — along with other military retirees, reservists and active-duty personnel — to buy meat, frozen goods and other items at discount prices.

“A gallon of milk is probably a buck cheaper” than at supermarkets like Hannaford and Shaw’s, Durkin said.

But after Saturday, Durkin and others will have to travel to Bangor or Portsmouth, N.H., to shop at the nearest commissary and military exchange. Most say they will now shop primarily at area supermarkets — and rework their budgets to spend more on food.

But they will do so grudgingly and while bearing a major grudge against the Pentagon officials whom Durkin and other midcoast residents with military ties hold accountable for driving up their cost of living and reneging on commitments to U.S. armed forces members and their families.

On Aug. 9, the Department of Defense informed Maine’s congressional delegation that despite months of aggressive advocacy to keep the local commissary and exchange open, they would close on Oct. 8. The stores’ final day comes four months and a week after the formal decommissioning of Brunswick Naval Air Station on May 31.

The commissary’s closure will end work for 27 full-time employees and additional contract employees at the commissary. According to information provided by the state’s congressional delegation, the Topsham store’s closure will affect 10,000 retirees and active-duty personnel who visit the commissary each year.

Edward and Roena Zink of Yarmouth are frustrated with the decision — and they said the Navy’s argument to close the commissary because no active base remains in the area is “inconsistent.”

Edward Zink, 76, is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel.

“We’re snowbirds,” he said, “and we have a place in Florida. There’s still a commissary in Orlando, and there’s no military base there. And it’s busy because there are so many retirees.”

“He and I both wrote letters to both senators and [Maine’s 1st District U.S. Rep.] Chellie Pingree, and for a while they were going to keep it open,” Roena Zink, 70, said. “But [Pentagon officials] seemed to have made up their minds.”

“I’m very disappointed,” said Sue Winstead of Lisbon Falls, pushing a cart of toilet paper and books out to her car. “I did 20 years in the Navy, and retired here in 1997 … It’s disgusting. It’s just sad. They said there’s not enough people in here, but when I’m here on weekends, at 53 I’m the youngest person in here — it’s filled with retirees.”

In May, U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Maine Republicans, released a Government Accountability Office study claiming that more than 10,000 eligible commissary shoppers would remain in the area after BNAS closed. Those shoppers include military retirees, reservists and active-duty sailors on precommissioning crews for destroyers being built at nearby Bath Iron Works.

The study also cited Defense Department estimates that the commissary saves an eligible family of four about $4,400 annually compared to shopping at a commercial grocery store.

The Zinks said they retired to Yarmouth, in part, because of the proximity to Brunswick and the services available to military retirees.

Now that the commissary is closing, they’re not sure where they’ll shop.

“We might take a cooler [to Portsmouth] every three weeks,” Roena Zink said. “But we’ll shop here for meat and fresh vegetables. I think it will be quite a bit more expensive.”

“I don’t understand it, I really don’t,” Durkin said Wednesday. “There were a lot of politics involved. It’s a shame [politicians] have to be involved. They should start looking out for vets because the vets were looking out for them.”

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