We have been there for just about every welcome home ceremony and we've captured those happy homecomings at Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield. Almost 7,000 Third ID soldiers are back with their families. Even more are scheduled to come in. By mid-February, all of the Third ID will have returned from Iraq.
Their families and friends aren't the only ones who are happy to see them. Hinesville officials say the military provides the same impact as a $900 million payroll in Georgia, and we see a lot of that right here. Many of the Army's 20,000 Third Infantry Division soldiers are returning with nearly a year of combat pay after time in Iraq. And they're ready to spend it.
Now, Hinesville is trying to accommodate them all. Hotels are filled to capacity with visiting families waiting to welcome loved ones home. "We went from a ghost town, pretty much, to just running out of rooms," said Fia Barrett, manager of the Country Inn & Suites. "The entire city of Hinesville and surrounding areas are sold out."
Restaurants are seeing more customers. "Just completely overwhelmed with all the business coming back and we're very proud to have them back," said Shoney's general manager Rose Lowe.
Businesses like Liberty Cycle are starting to see sales rev up, but service calls from soldiers are really keeping them running. "Bikes have been sitting out," said said owner Ken Jenkinson. "Guys want to get them back on the road."
Most businesses have seen an increase, especially the car dealerships. Liberty Chrysler Dodge Jeep had to hire five additional salespeople just to keep up with customer volume. General sales manager Greg Tyre told us, "It's really picked up. We've had about five times the traffic."
"I went to Taco Bell. I had to get some tacos," said Third Infantry Division Spc. DeeDee Saffold. "Then I came looking for cars and I bought a car here."
Someone totaled Saffold's old car, so she had to find another. But some soldiers, like Staff Sgt. Keith Bowser, are just ready for something new. "I was looking at it while I was over in Iraq, so I came over and drove it and bought it," he said of his new vehicle.
Sgt. Eugene Stewart took home two. "Treating me and my wife after a year-long deployment," he said. "My wife earned it just as much as I did."
This is really just the beginning for Fort Stewart and Hinesville. By the end of the month, another brigade, with soldiers from overseas bases that are closing, will be coming to the area, bringing an additional 10,000.