Town braces for loss of its soldiers
Friday, January 3, 2003
HINESVILLE, Ga. -- About 10,000 soldiers -- a third of this town's population -- are moving out of their apartments, putting furniture in storage, stocking up on desert gear and trying to steal a few extra moments with loved ones.
The Army's 3rd Infantry Division is preparing for another stint in the Persian Gulf.
People in Hinesville are used to watching Fort Stewart soldiers leave for dangerous duty, but usually not all of them at once. The last time this happened was 1991, when Operation Desert Storm left behind empty barbershops, burger joints and bars.
Some spouses are preparing to move back home with their parents, rather than face a war alone in a southeast Georgia ghost town.
Though no deployment date has been set, the soldiers are ready to go with little warning. Many spent Thursday tidying up their personal affairs.
Spc. Haidee Slater says leaving the bags at her front door isn't good enough.
"My bags are packed and in the trunk of my car, ready to go," Slater said while buying a used rucksack and extra T-shirts at a military surplus store just outside the main gate of Fort Stewart, 40 miles southeast of Savannah.
A steady stream of soldiers dressed in camouflage have been passing through the doors of David McDonald Rental Properties, paying rent on houses and mobile homes before their deployment makes them break their leases.
"Right now we're running about 25 percent off, pretty much," said Teresa McDonald, who owns the business with her husband. "But it's probably going to get worse."
Local business suffers
McDonald said the couple lost half their business during the Gulf War. As another uniformed soldier walked out her door, she tried to look back and find a bright side.
"We didn't have a traffic problem," she said. "That was the only good thing about it."
Katherine Blair, whose A-1 Cuts barbershop sits just outside Fort Stewart's main gate, said her business is already down 70 percent.
"I'm having to compensate by doing ladies' hair," she said.
To Blair, many of the soldiers who come in for $5 buzz-cuts are more than customers. Fort Stewart troops installed her plumbing. One of them recently gave her a Kuwait flag to hang among the Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that covers her walls.
"Up here, I'm going, 'How am I going to get by?"' she said, pointing to her head. Then she pointed to her heart. "Down here it's, 'My guys are going and am I ever going to see them again?'"
The deployments started in September when the 3rd Infantry's 2nd Brigade, which has more than 4,000 soldiers, was sent to Kuwait as part of the U.S. military presence maintained there since the Gulf War. This week, the Pentagon ordered the two other brigades -- one based across the state in Fort Benning -- to prepare for their own moves.
Spc. Jennifer Wright's husband is already in Kuwait. Now she's getting ready to go as well, having left their two dogs with her parents in Florida. Wright doesn't expect to see much of her husband, an infantry soldier, once they're both overseas. So it's no better than if one of them was staying home.
"It's worse," Wright said. "Here he'll be leaving and we'll be going there. Worst-case scenario, it'll be about six months until I can see him again."
Not everyone preparing to deploy from Fort Stewart is full-time Army. Sgt. 1st Class Robert Kilgore, a reservist from Gainesville, Fla., received orders to report to Fort Stewart last month. He won't say where he's going from here, but his desert fatigues give some hint.
For the New Year's holiday, Kilgore's wife, Tammy, drove to the Georgia post to spend a few days. They haven't had much time. He just got home from a year of active duty in October.
The Kilgores celebrated New Year's Eve at a party on Fort Stewart, where "we danced the night away," Robert Kilgore said.
"Yeah, to music our kids listen to -- rap music!" his wife replied. "It's hard saying goodbye. He called me up and said, 'I'm not going yet.' So I said to hell with work, left the kids with $20 each and said, 'No parties!"'