When Soldiers Deploy, Fort Stewart Stores Struggle

Jason Long gives one of his regular customers, Dr. Arthur Klein III, a standard-issue military hair

Jason Long gives one of his regular customers, Dr. Arthur Klein III, a standard-issue military hair cut. At the Off Post Barber Shop, just outside of Fort Stewart, any haircut is $8. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR

Scroll down to read a Reporter's Notebook about Warriors' Walk, Fort Stewart's memorial to the fallen soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division.

Diana and Scott Mortonsen

Diana and Scott Mortonsen opened Over Coffee three years ago. The spot has become a place where military families can connect and relax. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR
Carleeh Mulholland

Carleeh Mulholland, 25, works at her parents' coffee shop in Hinesville, Ga. Her husband, Cy, was a tank commander in Baghdad during the 3rd Infantry Division's last deployment. When she was worried, she came to the coffee shop for support. Kathy Lohr, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr, NPR

Hear Part 1 of This Report

It's hard not to notice when 18,000 people pick up and leave town all at once. Each time the soldiers at Fort Stewart are deployed, the residents of Hinesville, Ga., feel the absence keenly.

Fort Stewart is the home of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. The signs of the division's return are readily apparent: yellow ribbons tied to posts, offers of discounts, and billboards all over Hinesville welcoming soldiers home. Part of what residents miss is the business.

Jason Long works at Off Post Barber Shop, located just outside Fort Stewart's front gate. Long had to take a construction job for the year that the troops were in Iraq; there wasn't enough business for the six barbers who usually work there.

"We think they should send them in shifts, not send the whole base," Long says of the division's deployments.

Long works on a 3-year-old boy perched on a wooden booster seat, who is getting a military crop cut. It's a very popular style in Hinesville, a town of about 30,000. The Off Post Barber Shop depends heavily on the soldiers: Half of its business comes from them.

Across town there's another sigh of relief from Diana Mortonsen, who owns Over Coffee, the only coffee shop in town.

"It was a tough year on a lot of businesses, especially ma and pa types," she says. "Even some corporate businesses — they really had to play it smart as far as downsizing everything."

Diana and her husband, Scott Mortonsen, moved to Hinesville from Seattle to retire. They started the shop three years ago, but Scott says it turned into much more than a business.

"We're veterans," Scott Mortonsen says, noting that he and his wife served eight years in the Army."We're here to support what's going on in the structure of the military."

"We fit here," he says.

During the division's deployment in 2003, the coffee shop received a big screen television, donated so that family members could watch news of the war. One of the networks even brought Iraq to the coffee shop through live satellite feeds. During another year-long deployment last year, many spouses left, and things turned quieter. Sales tax revenue during the past year was down almost 6 percent. But some here say the larger impact has been emotional.

Carleeh Mulholland, the Mortonsens' 25-year-old daughter, is married to a staff sergeant at Fort Stewart. She reflects on what motivates her husband and other soldiers.

"Those people that do it for the country," she says. "I wouldn't. They're definitely braver than most — to sign their life away on a piece of paper and say, 'Anything you call me to do, I'm going to do it, without a choice.'"

The evidence of their bravery and sacrifice lies in what's known as Warriors' Walk at Fort Stewart. It's a long path of Eastern red bud trees. Each tree represents a soldier from the 3rd Infantry Division who has died since 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq.

Karla Hillen is a clinical social worker who counsels soldiers and their families on Post.

"Their deaths had meaning to a lot of people," Hillen says. "It's interesting how some told the other soldiers or families they didn't expect to come back. They kind of had this premonition kind of thing."

Their deaths, she says, "affected so many of the other soldiers that they worked with."

Hillen says the community never expected to see the memorial grow so quickly, from a few saplings to what now seems like a forest of nearly 300 trees.

Warriors' Walk: A Memorial to the Fallen

Red buds planted along Warriors' Walk. i i

Red buds planted along Warriors' Walk. Each one represents a soldier from the 3rd Infantry Division who has died in the Iraq war. Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Mills hide caption

itoggle caption Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Mills
Red buds planted along Warriors' Walk.

Red buds planted along Warriors' Walk. Each one represents a soldier from the 3rd Infantry Division who has died in the Iraq war.

Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Mills

Nearly everyone I talked with in Hinesville, Ga., knows someone at Fort Stewart. They have stories about the war to share; about their husbands or friends who have spent time in the Iraq desert. Soldiers talk about how all that dry heat takes some getting used to and how, now that they are back, small things — watching a football game or going out for ice cream — mean so much.

Almost everyone also mentions Warriors' Walk. I had heard about this place for the past two years, but only visited it this month. Trees stretch along both sides of Cottrell Field — ironically, the same field where soldiers are welcomed home when they return from deployments. Red buds are planted on each side, one for each soldier from the Third Infantry Division who has died since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003.

At the base of the trees, American flags often appear, along with flags representing the soldiers' units. A small concrete marker bears the name of each one. Often, families leave behind mementos: photos, a bottle of favorite beer, a toy tank, a crystal angel. Families linger slowly. Some say soldiers rarely visit here. It may be too sad, or just too scary. It is a profoundly solemn place.

As a reporter who covered the Oklahoma City bombing, the eerie feeling I get at Warriors' Walk reminds me of being at the fence erected around the bomb site at the Murrah building. Memorials were set up on the fence for many of the 168 people who died in that bombing. Afterward, Americans traveled from all over the country to leave notes, a stuffed toy or whatever they had to show support for the families of the dead and the hundreds who were injured.

At Fort Stewart, it is a more private tribute, but the same sense of grief and sadness comes through.

Officials have had to expand the size of the walk as the casualties mount. They've had to pour more concrete and curve the path around itself, and each month, they add more trees. Now, nearly 300 have been planted. At night, a small spotlight casts a glow on each tree. I shuddered as I walked along, feeling the ghosts in this place.

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