JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
More than 17,000 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division will start leaving Afghanistan this month, after the deadliest year of fighting so far.
Four combat brigades and an aviation unit will return to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. There, families are anxious to see their loved ones, and businesses are eager to make up for the slowdown during deployments.
From member station WPLN, Blake Farmer reports.
BLAKE FARMER: 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.
Ms. PATTY RUCCI (Gun Shop Owner): It's a very distinct sound. It's lock and load.
FARMER: It's been a long 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 September 11, 2001, economic highs and lows have become a routine.
Ms. RUCCI: A lot of businesses have come and gone. They're - open up when the soldiers are here and then when the soldiers are gone, they're like wow, what just happened to my customers?
To manage through the rollercoaster, 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. ..TEXT: (Soundbite of machine)
Ms. RUCCI: These are mostly for motor pools, barracks. But our work on the road - as far as lockouts and re-keys - pick up a little bit more when they're here, because there's more of them with vehicles here to lock their keys in, and they do - a lot.
FARMER: 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.
Ms. E. BURCHFIELD: What does he do at his faraway work?
Ms. OLIVIA BURCHFIELD: He shoot the bad guys.
Ms. E. BURCHFIELD: Yeah. He does shoot the bad guys. Why does he shoot the bad guys?
Ms. O. BURCHFIELD: They're not nice.
Ms. E. BURCHFIELD: Because they're not nice?
FARMER: Staff Sergeant 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.
Ms. E. BURCHFIELD: The countdown begins, obviously, the day he leaves, although you're insane if you start counting that early.
FARMER: To preoccupy herself, Burchfield 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.
Ms. E. BURCHFIELD: Like, I started working out like, right when he left, and I've lost 42 pounds since he left.
FARMER: Forty-two pounds?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. E. BURCHFIELD: It's amazing what stress does to you.
FARMER: This deployment has been particularly stressful compared with the last, 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.
Ms. E. BURCHFIELD: I was furious because I told him when he left, no hero crap.
FARMER: 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.
Major General FRANK WIERCINSKI (U.S. Army): They're telling us that they are prepared to augment and help.
FARMER: Major General Frank Wiercinski is the rear detachment commander at Fort Campbell.
Maj. Gen. WIERCINSKI: It could be financial. It could be behavioral health. It could more folks that have busted themselves up over there, and just didn't want to say anything 'til they got back because they'd be sent back out of the fight. So you may need more orthopedists.
FARMER: Wiercinski says the Army has gotten much better at taking care of soldiers returning from what's 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.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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