They are calling it Ketchup Gate, and it has military wives seeing red.

Last week, Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote an article for The Washington Post which, on its surface, seemed to suggest that military families take advantage of taxpayers.

Yes, I cringed, too. Then I read it again.

What Chandrasekaran is actually calling for is smarter use of taxpayers’ dollars, and therefore, more and better benefits for service members.

This is becoming a problem: we military wives can’t hear a message because we’ve grown accustomed to defending our benefits. For good reason. In the past, some journalists have been overtly offensive, and in many cases entirely inaccurate, when criticizing military pay. Indeed, just a few months ago, I wrote a response to a Huffington Post column that also rattled cages. But that columnist got his facts — and his tone — wrong.

Chandrasekaran, on the other hand, makes a few good points, and if we can just see beyond our past wounds, we’d realize that sometimes it’s OK — necessary, even — to call off the dogs in order for rational ideas that benefit all of us to make their way into the discussion.

Some of Chandrasekaran’s better points that have been buried beneath the silliness of too-many-bottles-of-ketchup include:

  1. Shutting down military commissaries based in the United States and allowing families to shop at civilian stores (and receive the same discount) would save $1 billion a year.
  2. Some benefits, like retirement pay and health care, can’t be scrimped. Others, like the commissary, should be sacrificed if combat readiness is at stake.
  3. Allowing family members to shop at civilian stores for the same discount provided by the commissary would actually be a greater benefit for retirees and reservists who often don’t live near a military base and have to travel great distances to find a commissary.
  4. Originally implemented in the 1800s as a means to support families stationed at rural bases, military commissaries in the United States are less critical today because “transformations in the military and civilian society over the following decades — including the expansion of large discount retailers near remote bases — obviated the original reason for [them].”

Trust me, I’ve been shopping at a military commissary since I was an infant in a stroller. I have (mostly) fond memories of following my mom up and down the aisles and marveling at the way she could pack two carts full of food and maneuver both around tight turns. Commissaries are part of the military-family culture. Inside, it’s always Veterans Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July thanks to patriotic advertisements aimed at service families.

But taxpayers and the government aren’t in the business of supporting our culture. They are in the business of supporting the mission. And if commissaries need to be cut in order to do that, I’m OK with it. In fact, I think our military-spouse culture of exclusivity is becoming our detriment, and perhaps sending us out into the larger consumer world would help others understand who we are and what we do.

Over the course of last year, I hosted 250 people, most of them civilian, to dinner as part of Dinner with the Smileys, and what I found was that even after all our public outreach, most people still don’t understand what military families go through. I wonder: is is partly because we are hidden away in our commissaries, spouse groups and bases with armed guards out front?

Some outsiders are beginning to view us negatively, and it doesn’t help that we have what feels to them like a secret world of special stores and discounts. We know these benefits are valid and well-earned, but when we won’t let civilians ask hard questions, we put them on the offensive. When we blast them for “ketchup” instead of hearing their idea, I’m afraid we come across as unreasonable. In our fight to defend ourselves, we have put our fingers in our ears over rational questions such as, “Are commissaries the most critical benefit we have?” and mocked — with ketchup memes — those who dared to ask.

This is no way to work together and ask for support.

If we want civilians to take us seriously when we tell them that things like health care and retirement pay are but a small sacrifice (for them) for what service men and women do for our country, then we need to walk away from the ketchup and listen when they come up with other ways to save money.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at