By Alan H. Feiler, Staff Writer
Vincent Marski was determined to personally welcome Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski when the veteran Maryland legislator toured the Fort Meade Commissary on Monday.
Shortly after Mikulski’s arrival, Marski thanked her for helping his grandfather William Owens a dozen years ago with receiving veteran benefits.
Owens, now 91 and living in Crofton with his wife, Mildred, served in the Merchant Marine during World War II and was stranded at sea for a few days after a German submarine torpedoed his ship off the coast of Italy.
“I just introduced myself and thanked her for what she did for my grandfather,” said Marski, the commissary’s assistant customer service manager. “She was very warm and appreciative, and I broke down.
“She’s a caring person,” the Arnold, Md., resident said. “It’s a shame she’s retiring, but she has certainly earned it.”
Mikulski, 79, who announced last winter she will retire after serving five terms in office, met with Garrison Commander Col. Brian P. Foley and other garrison leaders for a private conference before receiving a full tour of the commissary.
“Senator Mikulski’s dedication and effort to help preserve this benefit that supports our service members, military retirees and their families cannot be overstated,” Foley said. “The senator has always recognized the valuable contribution to our nation made by the men and women of Fort Meade, and by all military service members, retirees, civilians, and their families. We truly appreciate her past, present and future advocacy.”
As vice chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mikulski was instrumental in securing $34.5 million in federal funding through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 to widen and modernize access control points into Fort Meade, as well as reduce area and post congestion, improve security, and create safer and more efficient roadways.
In addition, the Baltimore-based senator, who has served in Congress longer than any woman in history, has been an advocate for commissaries on military installations. Mikulski is a member of the Senate Military Family Caucus.
“As a United States senator, I support not only members of the military but military families as well,” Mikulski said. “We want to make sure their needs are taken care of, so I’ve made sure that commissaries stayed open despite budget cuts by the Pentagon.
“A military isn’t just tanks and guns. The best weapon we have are our military members and their families.”
Mikulski said she also visited the commissary to observe how the Healthy Base Initiative, which she strongly supported, has helped service members, retirees and their families eat healthier — particularly regarding organic and natural foods — while remaining within their budgetary constraints.
Mikulski praised the commissary, which attracts approximately 85,000 customers per month and last year earned $73 million in sales, for being “clean as a whistle,” well-organized for shoppers, and providing excellent customer service.
“This is really working well here, really first-class,” Mikulski said. “I’m a grocer’s daughter, so I know my food. Talking to the seniors and young people here has shown me [the commissary] is a very impressive option. I’m glad I fought for it, and I will continue to fight for it.
“We believe it’s an earned benefit that should be undeniable and reliable, with good food and good prices to stay good and healthy.”
Fort Meade Commissary Officer John T. Blythe, members of the Defense Commissary Agency leadership, vendors, store employees and others – many of them with cameras — were on hand to greet Mikulski and escort her around the 120,000-square-foot facility, which opened in 1986 and employs approximately 125 workers.
“She’s been a strong supporter of commissary benefits and wants to hear from staff and patrons about what she’s been fighting for,” Blythe said. “It’s a great honor to have her here.”
Thomas C. Owens, director of DeCA’s Washington office, agreed.
“We’re very appreciative of her efforts for commissaries and the military in general,” he said.
After meeting with garrison leaders in the commissary’s conference room, Mikulski came to the produce section and greeted a gathering of people waiting for her.
“OK everybody, how are you doing?” the senator shouted out. “So where are we going to take the picture?”
After posing for a group shot with Foley and DeCA representatives between two displays of pistachio products, Mikulski embarked on a tour of the commissary.
“I didn’t know you have so much fun here. What am I doing in Washington?” she joked.
Not being a service member, military retiree or family member, Mikulski noted that she is not eligible to shop at the commissary.
“But I am a veteran,” she said with a smile. “I’m a veteran of the budget wars and a veteran of the filibuster wars.”
At one point, Rosemary Shomler, a shopper who lives in Brooklyn Park, approached Mikulski, held her hand, and thanked her for helping her family and others over the years.
“God bless you,” an emotional Shomler said.
After looking at displays of kale, protein bars, cakes and other items, Mikulski stopped by the DeCA healthy foods information table manned by Nissa Lazenby-Wilson, a commissary nutritionist. The senator thanked her for educating consumers about eating healthier diets.
“I’m a Weight Watcher, just like Oprah. I watch my weight go up and down,” Mikulski said to gales of laughter.
Afterward, Lazenby-Wilson said, “I didn’t really know what to expect, but she’s very personable and asked great questions.”
Mikulski greeted shoppers while touring the commissary’s bakery, prepared foods, deli, salad, meat, organic vegetables and general areas. She spoke with store employees and others about the importance of reading ingredients on labels and eating fresh vegetables and whole grain foods.
“You want to watch your waist and stretch your budget,” she said.
Quirt Schneider, the commissary’s meat manager, said he enjoyed giving Mikulski a tour of his department.
“She asked me about different types of meat here and what sells best, which is ground beef,” he said. “I told her we sell Hallal meat here and she said, ‘Oh, I know what that is. It’s like kosher.’ ”
One vendor, Maria Blanco, regional sales manager for Military Resale Solutions based in Chesapeake, Va., said it was a “great thrill” to meet Mikulski and take a selfie with her.
“I told her that my husband and I see her on TV all the time,” Blanco said. “We know what she’s done for equal pay and equal rights in this country. In my book, she’s a real superstar.”