ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Kirtland Air Force Base installation commander Col. David Miller is aware of complaints from retirees about being prevented from shopping at the commissary and base exchange during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And it may be July before those restrictions are lifted, he said.
“I’m fourth-generation military. Making this kind of decision is difficult,” he told the Journal, saying it was like restricting his father and grandfather, who both served in the Air Force.
But as the installation commander, Miller said, he had to protect the missions on the base from the spread of coronavirus.
“We’re not targeting retirees,” he said. “We’re trying to reduce the footprint of people coming on base.”
About 27,000 retirees live in the Albuquerque area, which means the base serves one of the largest groups in the country.
Jason Riley, a 24-year Army veteran, said he was angry about the decision.
“It sends a message that retirees aren’t valued,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of folks very upset about this.”
“He cut us out totally,” 20-year Air Force veteran Brian Collins said. “I don’t think it’s fair at all.”
Both Riley and Collins said being able to shop on base helps veterans who are struggling financially.
“For a lot of veterans who are not as financially fortunate, this helps them get through the month,” Riley said.
“For veterans living on a limited budget, it’s a big savings,” Collins added.
Miller said that the savings available on base are “actually minimal,” and that some items are cheaper off base. Miller hopes the federal stimulus payments from the CARES Act are helping to offset increased costs veterans are experiencing shopping off base.
Riley questioned the reasoning behind the restrictions, because retirees are still allowed to use the pharmacy on base. But Miller said the decision to allow access to the pharmacy was made to reduce the number of people using the medical group’s pharmacy off base near the Veterans Affairs hospital.
Miller said the restrictions in place at Kirtland are in line with those at other military bases around the country, including Cannon Air Force Base, near Clovis, and Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo.
Collins and Riley pointed to Nellis Air Force Base, in Nevada, where restrictions blocking retirees from using the commissary were lifted after complaints. Miller said retirees were allowed to use the commissary and exchange at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, where he served before coming to Kirtland.
When restrictions were first put into place, Miller was concerned Albuquerque would become a hot spot as a hub of activity in New Mexico. Four COVID-19 cases were reported on base in the first few days of the outbreak. Miller said cases on the base have since been “minuscule.” He said that the Department of Defense no longer allows military installations to divulge their numbers out of fear it could make them vulnerable to a terrorist attack but that they are included in state data.