Fort Campbell Readies To Welcome Home Soldiers

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Soldiers left Fort Campbell, Ky., for Afghanistan last February. Now, the base is getting ready to welcome 17,000 soldiers home. i i

Soldiers left Fort Campbell, Ky., for Afghanistan last February. Now, the base is getting ready to welcome 17,000 soldiers home. Four combat brigades and an aviation unit will leave Afghanistan after the deadliest year of fighting so far. Josh Anderson/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Josh Anderson/AP
Soldiers left Fort Campbell, Ky., for Afghanistan last February. Now, the base is getting ready to welcome 17,000 soldiers home.

Soldiers left Fort Campbell, Ky., for Afghanistan last February. Now, the base is getting ready to welcome 17,000 soldiers home. Four combat brigades and an aviation unit will leave Afghanistan after the deadliest year of fighting so far.

Josh Anderson/AP

More than 17,000 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division will begin returning to Fort Campbell, Ky., starting this month. Four combat brigades and an aviation unit will leave Afghanistan after the deadliest year of fighting so far.

Families are anxious to see their loved ones home safe, and businesses are eager to make up for the slowdown during deployments.

'Lots Of Businesses Have Come And Gone'

The last time soldiers crowded Patty Rucci's gun shop they were shopping not for themselves, but to arm their wives during the deployment. Rucci recommends a pistol-grip shotgun, which just needs to be cocked to get the message across to intruders.

"It's a very distinct sound," she says. "It's lock and load."

It's been a year since that burst of pre-deployment business. And Rucci hopes soldiers will return — like they usually do — with some extra combat pay ready to buy that new rifle for deer season.

With the 101st Airborne deploying five times since Sept. 11, 2001, economic highs and lows have become routine.

"Lots of businesses have come and gone," Rucci says. "They'll open up when the soldiers are here and then when the soldiers are gone they'll say, 'What just happened to my customers?' "

To manage the roller coaster, Rucci has diversified. She now has a skateboard shop, an odds and ends store she calls Just Stuff, and a locksmith service, which brings some business even when soldiers are gone.

"These are mostly for motor pools, barracks," Rucci says. "But our work on the road — as far as lockouts and re-keys — picks up a little bit more because there are more of them here with vehicles to lock their keys in, and they do — a lot."

'The Countdown Begins'

While businesses near Fort Campbell are expecting a stimulus, families are just hoping for life to get back to normal.

Emily Burchfield would like to stop quizzing her daughters about where their father is and the kid-friendly version of what he's doing.

"What does he do at his faraway work?" she asks her daughter Olivia.

"He shoot the bad guys," Olivia says.

Emily Burchfield of Hopkinsville, Ky, holds her two daughters. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Philip Burchfield, deployed with the "Rakkasans" of the 3rd Brigade. The unit is first in line to come home since it was the first to fly out last January. i i

Emily Burchfield of Hopkinsville, Ky, holds her two daughters. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Philip Burchfield, deployed with the "Rakkasans" of the 3rd Brigade. The unit is first in line to come home since it was the first to fly out last January. Blake Farmer for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Blake Farmer for NPR
Emily Burchfield of Hopkinsville, Ky, holds her two daughters. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Philip Burchfield, deployed with the "Rakkasans" of the 3rd Brigade. The unit is first in line to come home since it was the first to fly out last January.

Emily Burchfield of Hopkinsville, Ky, holds her two daughters. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Philip Burchfield, deployed with the "Rakkasans" of the 3rd Brigade. The unit is first in line to come home since it was the first to fly out last January.

Blake Farmer for NPR

"Yeah, he does shoot the bad guys. Why does he shoot the bad guys?"

"They're not nice," Olivia says.

"They're not nice," Burchfield agrees.

Staff Sgt. Philip Burchfield deployed with the "Rakkasans" of the 3rd Brigade. The unit is first in line to come home since it was the first to fly out last January.

"The countdown begins, obviously, the day he leaves, although you're insane if you start counting that early," Emily Burchfield says.

To preoccupy herself, she stays busy chasing her preschool-aged girls. She and her husband are also in a kind of competition to see who can lose the most weight.

"I actually started working out right when he left. I've lost 42 pounds since he left," Burchfield says. "It's amazing what stress does to you."

This deployment has been particularly stressful compared with the last deployment to Iraq, where Burchfield says her husband didn't shoot anybody. In Afghanistan, she says, he uses his weapon every day. He even earned a Bronze Star for running through gunfire to save one of his men.

"I was furious because I told him when he left, 'No hero crap,' " she says.

A Hope For Smooth Reintegration

Firefights and roadside bombs have killed more than 100 Fort Campbell soldiers since March, the post's highest casualty rate in the post-Vietnam era. 

Fearing the effects of combat that can follow soldiers home, the Army's top brass is focused on making the 101st Airborne's reintegration as smooth as possible.

"They are telling us that they are prepared to augment and help," says Maj. Gen. Frank Wiercinski, the rear detachment commander at Fort Campbell. "It could be financial. It could be behavioral health. It could be that more folks busted themselves up over there and just didn't want to say anything till they got back because they'd be sent back out of the fight. So you may need more orthopedists."

Wiercinski says the Army has gotten much better at taking care of soldiers returning from what is now a nine-year-old war.

As homecoming ceremonies for the 101st Airborne begin, other families are saying goodbye. The division will be replaced in Afghanistan by the 1st Cavalry out of Fort Hood, Texas.

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