Returning from war, soldiers splurge

Capt. Bryan Cecrle acknowledges his paranoia with a smile. Yes, he still parks his new Dodge Charger at the far end of any parking lot, just to keep its spotless, cherry-red finish away from swinging doors and rogue shopping carts.

Then again, he reasons, after spending a year in the dust and sweat of Iraq, he has earned every one of his Charger's 425 horsepower, and the least he can do is keep his present to himself looking pretty.

Around Fort Riley, the low thrum of its engine is enough to turn heads - "It goes faster than it looks," says Captain Cecrle. But in truth, many of the soldiers have new toys of their own.

Here and nationwide, troops are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with a fistful of cash from hazard pay, reenlistment bonuses, and a simple lack of things to buy on the fortress-bases in Mesopotamia. Now, many of them aren't hesitating to spend.

For towns like Junction City, Kan., it is a welcome boost, as well as a reminder of how much they rely on the military for prosperity. For a number of the troops - particularly the single ones - it has become as much a rite of the return home as flag-waving parades, simply another way to reconnect to the life they left behind.

"They're looking to reward themselves for 12 months of hard duty," says Bob Muto of Bottger's Marine in nearby Manhattan, Kan.

And many have been rewarding themselves at his store. With Fort Riley less than a half hour away and Milford Lake not far beyond that, Bottger's has always had a healthy share of soldiers as customers. But during the past year in particular, he has seen his sales to soldiers increase 35 percent, boosting overall sales 10 percent.

"It seems like most of those soldiers coming back from Iraq have a pocket full of money," he says.

While deployed to war zones, soldiers can build up a small fortune. For each month in Iraq and Afghanistan, they receive $225 of hazard pay and $100 of hardship-duty pay. Those in the most dangerous jobs can get an additional $150 a month in hazardous-duty incentive pay, while soldiers with families can apply for a $250-a-month Family Separation Allowance. Reenlistment bonuses range from $10,000 to $40,000. All this money, as well as their wartime salary, is tax-free.

In some cases, it's simply too much temptation. Among the items that Sgt. Phillip Marcum bought on returning to Junction City from his stint in Iraq with the Army Reserve: a motorcycle and a 37-inch television. He has some IRAs for the future, but the extra pay from Iraq is "all gone," he says.

Free-spending soldiers have always been a part of the Army, both after wars and in peacetime. "There has been a longstanding problem of soldiers buying expensive stereos, motorcycles, and muscle cars (and frequently going into debt)," writes David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, in an e-mail.

But now, as then, most are more responsible. "I don't see them squandering it," says Rod Pratt of Dick Edwards Auto World in Junction City.

Cecrle had done the math before he even went to Iraq. "I knew I would have everything paid off before I left - credit cards, student loans," he says. "I wanted something fun. It was going to be a convertible or a sports car."

Then, when he returned home, "It was sitting there" at the dealership. The courtship lasted only a few visits. By his third trip there, Cecrle knew it was meant to be. "It was time for me," he says of the impulsion to treat himself.

As a captain, he's further up the pay scale than many soldiers returning from the fight - so a new car wasn't out of the question. "The people buying Corvettes are lieutenant colonels and command sergeant majors," says Jim Clark of Jim Clark Auto Center in Junction City, whose sales have gone up 10 to 12 percent since the 3rd Brigade returned to Fort Riley from Iraq in January.

For the specialists and sergeants, the toys tend to be more modest. In Junction City, Wizard of Watts has been flooded with orders for new car stereo systems and the latest designer wheels. One soldier getting the interior of his SUV refinished there laughs, saying, "It's all the single guys."

In Manhattan, Bottger's has done a steady trade in used boats, ski equipment, and fishing gear. "Any product under $8,000, they pretty much buy it up," Mr. Muto says.

Yet it is not the sort of boom on which towns can build a future. The spending sprees last a few months at most, retailers say. But there are probably more deployments to come. Sergeant Marcum, for one, is already making plans.

"I was happy with my new stuff at first, but now I want something bigger and better," he says. "I'll probably get deployed again, and I'll buy some of those things when I get back."

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