Business is booming at Baumholder as 1st AD troops return with money to burn
August 15, 2004
Today, Stars and Stripes launches the first in an occasional series of stories on the return of the 1st Armored Division to bases in Germany.
Stars and Stripes will examine how the 15-month deployment to Iraq changed soldiers, their families, communities and the institution of the Army itself.
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — On Wednesday, Staff Sgt. Patrick Piper went to the Baumholder PowerZone and plunked down $1,699 for his brand new, 52-inch Samsung television.
The TV goes to his off-post house, along with a Gold’s Gym weight set, a barbeque grill, a set of patio furniture and a computer. Oh, and two televisions — one for a daughter, one for a son — along with a DVD player.
Piper — with Headquarters, Headquarters Detachment, 47th Forward Support Battalion — is one of more than 13,000 1st Armored Division soldiers newly back from Iraq with thousands of dollars in hardship and incentive pay from their 15-month deployment.
Their return is fueling a major economic boom that will reverberate through 1st AD bases across Germany through Christmas, say Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials.
The troops’ return unleashes “pent-up demand” after soldiers in the field and spouses back home deferred big purchases during the deployment, said Gary W. Burton, AAFES regional general manager, Kaiserslautern Military Community.
Now, that demand has been unleashed on travel agencies, car rentals, clubs and restaurants. But nowhere is it more evident than at AAFES’ PowerZone electronics stores.
As Piper waited Wednesday afternoon for AAFES employees to come up with a giant truck to deliver his giant television, soldiers stood quietly in line with hands full of DVDs, video games, digital cameras and assorted electronic gear.
Had he not gotten thousands of dollars over his base pay in Iraq — including an extra $1,000 per month during the 3-month extension — he probably would have had to spread his two-week spending spree over two years, Piper said.
Piper earned his money old-fashioned way — he nearly got killed.
During a convoy through downtown Baghdad, an attack knocked off his Kevlar body armor and left him unconscious. Asked whether his newfound buying power is worth extra months in Iraq, including a brush with death, Piper paused for a few long seconds.
Then he nodded his head. “Yeah, it was worth it.”
At 27, he’s doing pretty well, and he can give his wife, Johnetta, and his four children — Meko, 11, Little Pat, 9, Moneka, 8, and Nyah, 3 — the material things he didn’t have.
“I’ll always give my kids more than I have. I want them to have it better than I had it,” Piper said.
The return of Baumholder’s 2nd Brigade and Division Artillery units — about 5,000 soldiers — to the base in late June changed business overnight.
“They came in here buying plasma TVs. Big screen TVs. Surround sound. Everything they could get their hands on,” said Debra Melton, Baumholder PowerZone manager. “They’d come to the checkout with 30 DVDS at one time. Exercise equipment.”
It’s common for soldiers to pay cash for $1,700 TVs, the manager said.
The 1st AD’s return translated into a Baumholder PowerZone gross sales increase of 515 percent — to $1,064,429 from $206,421 — in July compared to July 2003, when all troops were deployed, according to figures supplied by AAFES.
Auto rentals at AAFES’ Sixt franchise were up 478 percent for the same period, while auto sales rose 933 percent.
Outside the gates of H.D. Smith Barracks, some local businesses also are benefiting.
“I was so full [of clients] I didn’t know where my head was,” said Jay Willis, travel agent at Anja’s Travel Agency in downtown Baumholder. During one day alone, she took in 25,000 euros in cash, and a total of about 35,000 euros including credit card transactions, Willis said. Soldiers were generous, she added, giving her 3,500 euros in tips.
More than 90 percent of soldiers bought airline tickets to the United States, Willis said. “Only a few … wanted trips to Spain, places like that.”
Even though cash registers around Baumholder were ringing nonstop Wednesday afternoon, some shoppers were trying to hold on to at least part of their windfall.
At the PowerZone, Monique Webb, 22, said she and her husband, Spc. Colin Webb, 23, 40th Engineers Battalion (Combat), saved $6,000 in only three months after putting on their financial brakes — money to tide them over when Colin Webb leaves the Army in seven months. She and her husband would have saved more had it not been for a vehicle accident that sent Colin Webb back to Germany for a few months with a broken arm, and the temptations of the downrange Base Exchange, according to Monique Webb.
While he was in Iraq, “He’d say, ‘Where’d the money go?’ And I’d say, ‘You spent $800 every paycheck buying DVDs!’”
The savings started piling up after they agreed that both would have to sign off on every purchase over $20, Monique Webb said. Colin Webb started limiting himself to three magazines per month from the PX in Iraq, and eating MREs instead of running to the base Burger King, his wife said.
Part of the deployment earnings will pay for their separation from the Army, ETS, but much of it is going for two major purchases — a 10,000 euro Italian couch for her, and a high-end computer for him that will cost between $6,500 and $8,000, Monique Webb said.
“We have a really bad habit” of liking the finer things in life, she said.
The extra money from the Iraq deployment has allowed soldiers to shop in rarified price ranges.
Though the AAFES car sales in Baumholder had a nearly 1,000 percent sales increase, some soldiers bypassed AAFES’ modestly priced Chevys, Chryslers and Fords for high-end German cars, said Gary Pasvogel, Baumholder’s main AAFES store manager.
“Those Porsche Cayennes [sport-utility vehicles] you see in the parking lot — some of those belong to soldiers,” Pasvogel said.
Ironically, while many companies outside Baumholder’s gates — especially civilian car rentals — told Stars and Stripes that business has doubled or tripled since the troops returned, the impact on the local BMW dealer is limited.
Soldiers and officers laying out big money for BMWs want to take them home, said Rolf Kuhn, the company’s manager. But BMW won’t allow Auto-Albert to sell cars built to American emissions and impact specifications, Kuhn said.
“But I can’t sell [U.S. specification cars] to Germans,” he said, “so it’s not worth it.”
Instead, Kuhn sends shoppers to Pentagon Car Sales in nearby Kaiserslautern.
Since July 1, Pentagon Car Sales has seen a 70 percent increase in BMW sales compared to the same period last year, said Terry Haverty, a sales manager.
“It’s night and day, actually,” Haverty said. He attributes most of the increase to troops coming home, particularly to nearby Baumholder, he said. Most are buying 2005 models. One soldier told him the only things guys talked about in Iraq were girls and cars, Haverty said.
“A lot of them planned that when they got back they would do something that they could never do before,” he said. “A lot of them didn’t know what was going to happen next while they were down there. So it’s a reward for themselves or for their wives.”
Somewhat forgotten in the spending frenzy is just how bad business was while troops were gone.
As impressive as sales increases seem, customers have to understand that for the 15 months 1st AD bases stood empty, AAFES stores took huge losses while trying to retain staff until units returned, AAFES manager Burton said.
No matter how good sales are at the moment, “we’ll never make up the ground we lost,” Burton said.
—Marni McEntee contributed to this story.
By the numbers
The numbers at various 1st Armored Division bases:
• Baumholder: Gross PowerZone sales for July 2004 were $1,064,429, a 515 percent increase over July 2003 sales of $206,421.• Mainz-Kastel: Gross PowerZone sales for July 2004 were $1,271,270, a 14.7 increase over July 2003 sales of $867,984.• Friedberg: Gross PowerZone sales for July 2004 were $228,002, a 39.6 increase over July 2003 sales of $57,579.• Auto sales at Baumholder increased 933 percent to 56 cars during July 2004 from six cars sold in July 2003.• Baumholder car rentals increased nearly 478 percent to 507 rentals for July 2004, up from 106 rentals in July 2003.
— Stars and Stripes