Diego Garcia is a small island—37 miles long, of which only 17 are inhabited, and one-quarter of a mile wide—in the Indian Ocean. With only 350 active duty Sailors stationed there, and about 1700 civilian support personnel, Diego Garcia may not seem like an obvious spot for a Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society thrift store.
Since the shop opened June 26, however, several hundred customers have come to shop for bicycles, books, snorkel gear, shoes, and a host of other items. The Diego Garcia thrift store has quickly become the real hot spot on the island.
“Our situation on Diego Garcia is unique,” explained ABHC Chris Shay, who helped launch the shop. “This is only a one-year billet for all military. There are no spouses or kids here. No one is allowed to visit. There’s nobody on the island that doesn’t have a reason to be here. Diego Garcia is one of the most isolated duty stations on the planet.”
When Sailors receive orders to Diego Garcia, they bring only what they need for a year. While they can bring household goods with them, if they forget something, it can be difficult and expensive to shop from the island. There are no brick-and-mortar retailers on Diego Garcia, and not all online stores will ship there. Because it’s so expensive to take things off the island when you leave, and because they might not need the gear at their next duty station, they give it away.
“When it’s time to leave, we either give things we don’t need to take with us to other Sailors, or throw them away,” said Chief Shay. “Master Chief came up with this idea to open the thrift shop so people could donate all the stuff they don’t need or can’t take with them.”
“This helps us to reuse what’s already on the island, said CMC William Webster. “We’re helping the environment, so things aren’t going in the landfill and we help Sailors and civilians find items they want.”
Most NMCRS thrift shops are open only to military personnel and their families, or sometimes people who work on base. Because Diego Garcia is so small, and most inhabitants are civilian support personnel, the Society made an exception to the policy. Those who work on the island can shop there as well, which is helpful because they are limited by the same lack of retail options as service members.
The building that houses the new thrift store had been infested with termites and was slated for demolition. CMC Webster rescued the building and enlisted a team to rehabilitate it. It’s only a couple hundred square feet, but that’s enough space for fast-moving inventory. The shop is open three days each week, and managed by CMC Webster, who also serves as the Society’s representative on the island when Sailors need assistance. He has a solid cadre of 13 volunteers, including two active duty Air Force personnel and one civilian.
“The building they found for the shop was in total disarray,” recalled Karen Fahland, director of NMCRS Guam, which oversees the Diego Garcia thrift shop from 8,000 miles away. “From the pictures they sent I didn’t know how they were going to do this, but they gutted it, put in the blood, sweat, and tears and turned it into something great. They had a vision. I have just been a cheerleader behind the scenes and answering their questions.”
“Karen has been a huge help,” said Chief Shay. “She sent us a $400 check to start the change fund, a cash box, and a binder with instructions. She gets us anything we need.”
“The thrift shop on Diego Garcia is a twofold success,” Fahland said. “It’s a good thing for their community and it supports the Society. I love that.”
Surprisingly, sweaters and jackets sell well at the shop even though it’s 80 degrees year-round on the island. Bicycles are also popular, as well as fishing and snorkel gear, kitchen equipment, movies, electronics, and books. Unusual donations to the shop have included an inversion table for relieving back pain and a pair of Elvis sunglasses with sideburns attached.
Because demand is high for many items and supply is low, the Diego Garcia shop welcomes donations by mail. “Instead of sending a care package of junk food, send us a care package of clothes you want to get rid of or cooking utensils or bikes,” CMC Webster said. The address to mail donations is US Navy support facility Diego Garcia, PSC 466 Box 2, FPO AP 96595.
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso