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FAIRBANKS - After 16 months in Iraq - four of those on a grueling assignment in Baghdad - members of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team are buying clothes, cars, electronics and liquor, frequenting night clubs and providing a much-anticipated rousing to the local economy.
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The shopping started almost immediately after the soldiers arrived at Fort Wainwright over a 16-day period from late November to early this month.
Many of the young, single soldiers had few civilian clothes to change into when they arrived in Fairbanks.
Awaiting them was a sprawl of new businesses in northwest Fairbanks near the Steese and Johansen Expressway that weren't open when the brigade left in August 2005, including Old Navy and Sportsman's Warehouse.
At Old Navy, store manager Luke Allegood said Dec. 2 there were at least 200 soldiers shopping in the store the day before. With short haircuts, slight tans and wrinkled clothes, Allegood said the soldiers weren't hard to spot.
"They look just as tired as can be," he said.
Mostly, Allegood said the soldiers were snapping up casual tops, coats and pants.
"They've just ravaged the jeans," he said, although the section was still well-stocked shortly after opening.
A few doors down at Sportsman's Warehouse, store manager Doug Mason said he's seen a marked increase in business in the last two weeks. He said the soldiers are buying everything from clothing to ice fishing gear to firearms.
"They come in here and it's just like heaven for them," he said.
Spc. Daniella Doerr and her fiance, Spc. Shaun Schellenger, both of the 172nd, were in Sportsman's Warehouse on Dec. 2 looking at firearms for Schellenger. All soldiers, who were required to carry weapons with them most of the time while in Iraq, turned them in upon landing at Eielson Air Force Base
"I carried one around long enough," Doerr said of the couples' firearms shopping trip. "But I guess he misses his."
Sportsman's Warehouse was Doerr's second shopping stop when she arrived in Fairbanks one week ago. She wore the one civilian outfit she had, which included a T-shirt of Schellenger's, to Old Navy for some clothes, and then to Sportsman's Warehouse for more clothes and cold-weather gear like boots, snow pants and a jacket.
Later in the day, the couple was planning on shopping for furnishings for their new home, after lunch at Chili's Grill & Bar, another place that's seen a bump in business with the return of the brigade. Franchise partner John DeHaven said some days last week, almost half the restaurant's sales were from military personnel.
"We expect the influx in business throughout the first of the year," he said.
Jeremy Fillippi, manager at Gene's Chrysler, said new car sales have been up, as have sales for home and vehicle audio equipment at Radio Shack/Interior Electronics, according to employee Alex Everett. A manager at Big Ray's Store said stocking caps are a recent popular purchase for soldiers with short haircuts, trying to stave off the chill. Those same haircuts are sending soldiers to area barber shops in droves.
"On a Saturday, I'll probably have at least five come in from the base since they came back," said Jerry Wright, who owns JD Styles.
Eve Blake, a stylist at Kreative Kutz, described business there as "crazy busy."
"We had a five-hour wait last week," Blake said. "They were coming in with chopped-up haircuts. They're glad to be back and get a real haircut."