WASHINGTON (Tuesday, Nov. 11) – U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) are asking Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to shelve plans during the ongoing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan to close dozens of stateside commissaries and military base schools used by troops and their families.

According to The Army Times (“An Act of Betrayal,” Nov. 3), the Department of Defense is developing a plan to transfer control of more than 58 schools to local communities. Separately, an August 29 memorandum from the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness approved plans to close 19 commissaries across the country and to study the possible closing of another 19 in the coming year.

In the letter to Secretary Rumsfeld, the senators expressed their concerns that these closures would undermine critical quality-of-life programs, which they said are essential for adequate recruiting and retention. The senators also questioned the appropriateness of steps that can erode the home-front morale and welfare of troops and their families during wartime.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense and co-chair of the U.S. Senate National Guard Caucus, said, “These are essential family support programs. If we undermine the safety net of services and benefits available to our men and women in uniform and their families, recruiting and retention will suffer, and so will the morale of our fighting forces.”

Senator Patty Murray said, “Taking away soldiers’ benefits while they are fighting for our freedom is a terrible policy and sends a terrible message to our troops and their families. Military families are sacrificing a great deal already, and they should not be further penalized by losing access to commissaries and base schools.“ Murray is the first woman to serve on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “Right now we are calling on the men and women of our armed services to sacrifice so much. Now, they face the added worry that their commissaries and schools may be closed and their families will some of their most essential services. This kind of position sends exactly the wrong message to our servicemen and woman and adds unnecessarily to the burdens and anxieties of serving. The least we can do to honor the profound sacrifices of our men and women in uniform is to provide for all their families' needs.”

The text of the senators’ letter follows:

November 6, 2003

The Honorable Donald Rumsfeld
Secretary of Defense
The Pentagon, Room 3E880
Washington, DC 20301

Dear Secretary Rumsfeld:

We were taken aback by a recent news report in The Army Times which cites plans by the Department of Defense to close military base commissaries and schools. Congress has indicated its interest in providing for our men and women in uniform by providing health insurance access for all members of the Guard and Reserve. A decision to scale back schools and commissaries would be an incredible blow to military families and retirees who spent their careers serving our nation. We hope you will reconsider this policy.

Under the plans that were promulgated from your office, the military services have been ordered to close 19 commissaries across the country. The August 29 memorandum from The Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness indicated that another 19 could be closed in the coming year. We also understand that the Department is considering closing more than 50 schools in bases across the nation.

Closing commissaries would considerably undermine the morale and welfare of these troops and their families. These facilities allow service members access to essential goods and service, often at bases in locations that are remote and far from other stores. We are concerned that the Department did not follow its own criteria in reviewing the efficiency of these facilities.

Department of Defense domestic elementary and secondary schools provide high quality education. Closing these schools would force the sons and daughters of our military personnel to commute long distances to attend schools that may not have the capacity to absorb the DOD student population. Our men and women in uniform have enough to worry about in Iraq, without throwing their children’s education into chaos.

Through the press of your daily responsibilities, you know better than just about anyone the grave sacrifices the men and women of our armed forces are making, as well as the sacrifices that their families are making. We hope that as you reexamine these decisions you will also agree with us that they are harmful and counterproductive, and that you will reverse them as promptly as possible.