Image: Soldier car shopping
Stephen Morton  /  AP
Army Spc. Todd Strange shops for a new car on Thursday at a Ford dealership in Hinesville, Ga. Less than 30 hours after he returned from Iraq, Strange said he used part of his hazard pay to make a down payment on a new 2006 Mustang GT.
updated 1/21/2006 5:22:28 PM ET 2006-01-21T22:22:28

One short test drive and Army Spc. Todd Strange is gushing “Oh, sweet! I love it!”

He’s been home from Iraq a little over 30 hours and already he’s trading in his little 2001 Dodge Neon for a muscle car — a 2006 Mustang GT, V-8 engine, price tag $26,320.

“I’m buying the car to show off, pretty much,” admits Strange, 26, of St. Louis.

Business has been booming in this southeast Georgia town since just after Christmas when thousands of 3rd Infantry Division troops from neighboring Fort Stewart began returning from a yearlong tour in Iraq and finding their bank accounts flush with combat pay, tax breaks and bonuses.

“Christmas in January” proclaim newspaper advertisements for one local furniture and electronics store.

‘It’s been a lonely year’
That’s especially true for retailers who suffered through 2005 while some of their best customers were overseas. Now, they worry about keeping new cars and home theater systems in stock.

“It’s been a lonely year,” said Monica Doering, manager of Freedom Furniture and Electronics, 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.

Hotels in Hinesville have been booked solid by soldiers’ families attending homecoming ceremonies. Restaurant parking lots are full, and rental properties that sat vacant for nearly a year are filling up again.

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

The overall economic hit hurt but doesn’t appear as bad as many feared, Mayor Tom Ratcliffe said. For the first 10 months of 2005, the latest figures available, sales tax revenues in town were down only 6 percent compared with the same period in 2004.

Extra risk means extra pay
It’s not just a year of being unable to hit the shopping malls and car dealers that has troops flush with cash. During their yearlong Iraq deployments, they earned combat pay and other incentives, and their income wasn’t taxed.

Several soldiers interviewed estimated they earned an extra $700 to $800 per month while in Iraq, totaling up to an extra $9,600 for some from their year overseas.

“Without the extra money, I couldn’t go out and get this stuff,” said Spc. Sherrod White, 21, of Fayetteville, N.C., as he picked out a $1,499 desktop computer with a $599 flat screen monitor at Doering’s store.

“A lot of people, they just go crazy with it,” he said.

At Hinesville Ford, where Strange picked out his Mustang, general manager Fred Mingledorff said he’s on track to sell more than 120 cars this month — compared to 80 during a typical month and 40 while the 3rd Infantry was overseas.

Gifts luxurious and mundane
And the troops aren’t settling for economy cars, he said.

“They’ve been fighting a war for a year. When they get back, they sure deserve to be able to spend their money,” Mingledorff said.

The Hinesville Wal-Mart Supercenter has conspicuous gaps in its wall of large-screen TVs because impatient buyers have taken the display units.

Even the shelves of pots, pans and other mundane household items have been picked practically bare as soldiers furnish homes and apartments.

“This is something that typically we would never have out of stock,” said Wal-Mart manager Ted Sells. “As you can see, they’ve just wiped us out.”

And it’s not just the businesses that are celebrating Christmas a month late.

Heidi Harms, the wife of an Army chaplain, still has her tree, stockings and lights up and 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,”’ said Harms.

Their children, ages 11 years to 18 months, haven’t seemed to mind the delay, especially since they got gifts last month from Capt. Lee Harms’ parents.

“They just know Santa Claus was taking care of the soldiers in Iraq, and he’s coming home with dad,” she said.

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