Originally created 01/22/06

Troops come home, find fatigues lined with gold



HINESVILLE, Ga. - Barely 30 hours after returning from Iraq, Army Spc. Todd Strange drove to Hinesville Ford to trade in his 2001 Dodge Neon for a new 2006 Mustang GT, price tag $26,320.

"Ever since I could drive, I knew the Mustang was the muscle car, the one I want," says the 26-year-old from St. Louis. "I'm buying the car to show off, pretty much."

Business has boomed in this southeast Georgia military town since thousands of 3rd Infantry Division troops from neighboring Fort Stewart began returning from a yearlong tour in Iraq just after Christmas.

Soldiers are coming home to bank accounts flush with combat pay, tax breaks and bonuses tacked onto their paychecks during wartime deployments. And when the fighting ends, the spending begins.

As one furniture and electronics store says in its newspaper ads, it's "Christmas in January."

"It's been a lonely year," says Monica Doering, the manager of Freedom Furniture and Electronics, which is less than a mile from Fort Stewart's main gate. "It's not only the soldiers' Christmas, but what we're experiencing now is actually our Christmas."

The 3rd Infantry has 19,000 troops returning to Fort Stewart, Hunter Army Airfield in nearby Savannah and Fort Benning in Columbus, home of the division's 4,500-soldier 3rd Brigade. More than three-fourths have come home, with the rest expected to arrive by the end of February.

In Hinesville, hotels have been booked solid by families of soldiers traveling to Fort Stewart to attend daily homecoming ceremonies. Restaurant parking lots are full during dinner hours, and long-vacant rental properties are being filled again.

"We needed it badly. If they are not here, we can hardly pay our bills," says Mike Randerwala, the manager of the Quality Inn in Hinesville. "Last year, I had a loss of more than $100,000."

Though other Hinesville business managers reported similar losses for 2005, Mayor Tom Ratcliffe says the overall economic hit doesn't appear as bad as many feared. For the first 10 months of 2005, sales tax revenues in town dipped only 6 percent compared with the same period in 2004.

A major factor behind the spending spree is the extra money burning holes in the troops' pockets. Soldiers' income isn't taxed during deployments, and they earn combat pay and other incentives.

Several soldiers interviewed said they earned an extra $700 to $800 per month while in Iraq.

"Without the extra money, I couldn't go out and get this stuff," says Spc. Sherrod White, 21, of Fayetteville, N.C., as he picked out a $1,499 computer and $599 monitor at Doering's store.

Some Fort Stewart military families are literally celebrating Christmas a month late. Heidi Harms, the wife of Capt. Lee Harms, of Port Townsend, Wash., not only still has her tree, stockings and lights up, but she also agreed not to even shop for presents for their five children until her husband gets home.

"He loves shopping for the kids, so he said, 'Please don't do anything until I get back,'" she said.