FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — The deployment of up to 1,500 troops based out of Fort Bragg to Iraq has taken some of the joy out of the holiday season, but there's been at least one silver lining: It's been a boon to the local economy.
Fort Bragg takes pride in the fact that it is one of the nation's strategic response forces, so units are always at the ready and prepared to deploy anywhere in the world within 18 hours if a call comes.
Yet, as the face of the military has changed over the years, so has life in this military town.
Today more families are invested in the local community, living and working here so the local economy can recover more readily from a large deployment.
In addition, local hotels have gotten a boost in business from incoming reservists while jewelry stores’ sales are off the charts from soldiers hoping to give a symbol of commitment to a loved one before shipping off.
Community embraces families
Fayetteville knows how important the military is to local businesses; it's worth millions of dollars to the local economy.
As it celebrates the holiday season, the town has embraced the military families and offers help while the soldiers are gone.
”We’re gonna be fine, we’ve really done our homework this time and have a much stronger support system in there for the families, for businesses," said Tim Holverson, executive vice president of the Fayetteville Area Chamber of Commerce. "They understand much better how to handle these deployments.”
The contribution has grown over the past decade, Holverson explained.
“While the one spouse is deployed, the rest of the family unit has remained here, unlike the first Gulf War," he said. "The family is staying here because we do have the support in place. They’re vested in the community, they own homes, they have jobs they like, they’re in the schools. There is much greater connectivity than there was 10, 12 years ago.”
The 46,000 soldiers and 8,000 civilian staff based at Fort Bragg“really mean an awful lot to the community,” he added.
Rush to buy rings
As troops get ready to head off to Iraq to help bolster security ahead of the Jan. 30 election, there has been a rush among soldiers to buy jewelry.
“She’s about ‘yay’ tall, so I don’t want it to overtake her hand,” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Ostrander as he looked over rings at a local jewelry store. “I’ve gotta find the one that just says, ‘This is the one.’”
Soldiers like Ostrander know they could be leaving with very little notice. He’ll deploy sometime next year and wants to get engaged before the New Year.
“I wanted to be married before I go overseas, so she’s taken care of if anything happened while I’m gone,” he said.
Another big seller ahead of the holidays are bracelets engraved with a soldier’s name and unit, a special gift for relatives left behind.
“We’ve actually done about 25 percent more [business] this first week than we did last year," said David Hinkamp, owner of a local jewelry store. "They know they’re leaving, they want to show them they love them, they want to show their commitment, they’re committed to our country and we’re committed to them,” he said.
Hotel operators in the towns around Fort Bragg certainly count on business from the military. Big deployments used to mean a drop in sales, but reserve troops, in town to “fill in” are filling up hotel rooms this holiday season.
“Because of the lack of lodging in the Fort Bragg area, for that type of mass troop movement, it’s been a windfall not just for my property, but for most properties in the area,” said Mark Williams, a hotel manager and the president of the Fayetteville area hospitality association.
There has been at least a 20-25 percent increase in the rate of hotel occupancy, he said.
“If you’d asked me three years ago what I felt about a deployment, it would have been devastating … but under the current conditions, we’ve really benefited from it,” said Williams.
Donna Gregory is an NBC News correspondent recently on assignment in Fayetteville, N.C.