Krist Swensen of Levittown, who retired from the U.S. Navy...

Krist Swensen of Levittown, who retired from the U.S. Navy in 1996, shops for lower-priced items at the Navy Exchange and commissary at Mitchell Field in Garden City. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

After filling several prescriptions at the Mitchel Field Family Health Center where the absence of a co-pay saved him more than $60, Krist Swensen headed to the U.S. Navy Exchange, hoping to save even more money.

The Navy retiree cuts costs by getting his generic prescriptions filled at the Defense Department-run clinic under a government health plan that does not charge him a co-pay. And he shops at the Navy Exchange and at the Mitchel Field Commissary, a mini-department store and a supermarket operated by the Defense Department in Garden City, a stone's throw from the Long Island Children's Museum.

"Without this? No, it would be very difficult for me to stay on here on my military pension," said Swensen, 60, who lives in Levittown. "It makes a difference."

A tiny military-related mall on the site of the old Mitchel Field is helping military retirees, reservists, disabled veterans and Guard and Reserve troops stretch Defense Department checks to cover life on high-cost Long Island.

Although military paychecks and veterans' pensions can more easily cover household costs where America's largest military bases are situated in southern states or the rural north, the high cost of housing, utilities and other expenses in the metropolitan area can leave military and veterans incomes dauntingly short.

So the clinic, commissary and exchange provide welcome relief to military families and retirees struggling to make ends meet.

"The prices are better here," said Mark Pueschel, 45, a senior master sergeant in the Air Force Reserve based at Westhampton Beach.

Pueschel, whose day job brings him to Nassau County, said he comes to the commissary to stock up on summer snacks favored by his four children and the seemingly endless boxes of cereal they tear through in a week. Milk, meat and other items also make his shopping list.

"I was talking to my wife about it the other day," said Pueschel, as he strode into the commissary last week. "Everything is about 50 cents less per item here."

The commissary system says patrons save about 30 percent over civilian prices, in part because federal rules hold their prices to 5 percent over cost.

Savings are integral

The savings offered by commissaries and exchanges, which are not open to the public, are considered "an integral element" of the pay and benefits packages of military personnel, according to the Pentagon.

For this reason, access to these facilities is reserved for active-duty soldiers, members of the National Guard and Reserve, military retirees and veterans who are 100 percent disabled. Spouses, former spouses and individuals caring for the children of deployed troops can also be eligible.

The health clinic provides care for about 1,300 patients through the Defense Department's Tricare Prime, a managed care medical insurance package for active duty soldiers, retirees and their families who live too far from a military medical center to be seen by doctors there.

Open six days a week, and with classic shows burbling from a television in the waiting room, the clinic's nine physicians include specialists in primary care, internal medicine, podiatry, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology.

"Why not have a stand-alone facility where everyone who comes through the door is military?" said Jeff Bloom, director of Uniformed Services Family Health Plan, a contractor that runs the clinic, as the 1960s program "Mr. Ed" played on the television screen in the background. "The patients love it. They tell each other war stories."

To be sure, the military-only shopping mall in Garden City doesn't hold a candle to the bigger selections offered by government-sanctioned discount retail stores at the nation's major military bases, where short-cropped soldiers can buy everything from camo gear to cut-rate gasoline.

Finding the best deal

And the exchange system cannot always beat prices in commercial outlets. For example, an Apple iPad offered for $489 on the exchange website was being offered for $479 on the Staples website on the same day earlier this month. The same model of a 10,000-watt portable generator offered for $2,499 by the exchange was offered for $200 less by online retailer Electric Generators Direct.

And with only two commissaries in the area -- there is another at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn -- eligible shoppers in eastern Long Island often find it not worth the 90-minute round-trip to Garden City to save a few dollars.

But for those who live close to the military-friendly medical and retail mall, enthusiasts say it is like found money.

Vietnam War veteran McArthur Wilson says so.

An Alabama native who relocated to New York at 20, with fresh discharge papers, "a pocket full of money and a new Monte Carlo," he eventually struggled with war-related stress that left him 100 percent disabled.

Now 61, and living in the nearby Mitchel Field veterans housing complex, Wilson says the amount he saves while shopping at the commissary and the Navy PX for clothing, electronics, toiletries and other items spells the difference between him staying on Long Island or possibly moving back to Alabama.

"This is great for my family," he said in the commissary parking lot, with his daughter in tow. "Here, you get a better deal."

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