Dispatches From Fort Campbell
WOODLAWN, Tenn.—Just outside Gate 10 at Fort Campbell, hunting and fishing supplier CK Outfitters was hosting a "pre-deployment blowout sale."
Local hard-rock station WZZP ("Pure Rock for Fort Campbell") had sponsored free food and drink, and shoppers ate burgers and hot dogs while they perused the markdown bins. Outside the store, Diamondback Tactical had set up a massive tent full of military gear: lightweight desert boots, moisture-wicking T-shirts, knee and elbow pads, scopes and goggles, along with assorted pouches, packs, and bags.
The 101st Airborne Division is preparing to return to Iraq this fall, and Diamondback, a purveyor of high-end tactical equipment, saw an excellent chance to unload some excess inventory.
Rocky Senatore, a Diamondback product manager and ex-special forces soldier, said his company had half a million dollars' worth of items that were no longer in their catalog, so they decided to come down to Fort Campbell and sell it at cost.
"Most of those guys, they get issued stuff by the Army, and it's good stuff. But there might be something out there that does it a little bit better or a little bit differently. And if it makes their life a little bit easier, they're willing to pay for it out of pocket."
When the Army first deployed to the Persian Gulf, many soldiers paid out of pocket for essential gear, including intercoms, GPS handsets, and CamelBak canteens. Advanced body armor was also in short supply. This time around, Army units are much better equipped, but the troops still go on a spending spree before deployment.
Capt. Rob Shaffer, toting his young daughter Courtney in a Kelty backpack, was shopping for extra carrying equipment. This will be his second rotation for Operation Iraqi Freedom, and he had a pretty good idea of what he was looking for.
"They've got a great selection," he said. "Basically, different pouches you can put stuff in. It's not designed for anything [in particular]—it's more about personalizing your kit."
Among the items in stock at the sale: the "Doorbuster" tactical breaching tool, once $1,059.95, now $948, and shotgun ammo pouches, marked down to $11. At the register, they were raffling off a lovely .45-caliber Springfield Armory Model 1911 pistol.
Dan Stevenson, a Diamondback sales manager, said most of the items on display were going for "much lower" than catalog prices.
For Diamondback, deployment is an opportunity. In the Fort Campbell community—Hopkinsville, Ky.; Clarksville, Tenn.; and the surrounding towns—many businesses are bracing for a downturn as the division's 20,000 soldiers leave town for a minimum of a year.
Dan Cronk, co-owner of CK Outfitters, explained the economics of deployment while someone behind the counter practiced squawking a turkey box call.
"A lot of our business is military, but after they're deployed, of course, it slows down," he said. "During the first deployment [to Iraq], it probably went down 30 or 40 percent from the previous year."
When the division returns, however, it has a lot of combat pay saved up. According to Cronk, that just about makes up for the down year, but it requires some planning. "I think that basically it evens out, but you just have to survive that year while they're gone," he said.
As the cliché goes, everyone buys a new truck when they return. Kevin, working the sales desk at O'Reilly Auto Parts on Fort Campbell Boulevard, said, "We suffer quite a bit with the guys leaving."
At the Dollar General on the same strip, manager Jessica Rutledge said she expected sales would surge a week or two before the division deploys but would slump for the rest of the year that they are overseas.
"People start sending boxes right when they leave," she said. "And then after that it'll go down anywhere from an average of 10 to 25 percent a week."
The items most in demand before the division departs are basic necessities: toothpaste, batteries, and Handi Wipes. According to Rutledge, it will take up to a month after the division returns for business to pick up again.
It depends, she said, "if they're going to get out or transfer to another station. Or if they file bankruptcy because their wives decided to go out and buy new cars and spend all kinds of money."
When the 101st finally returns, Rutledge expects a spike in demand for home pregnancy-testing kits.
"About six months after they get back, there'll be a big baby boom," she said. "It happens every time—I can't keep pregnancy tests in stock. I'm mean, it's absolutely ridiculous. I'll order, like, 48 pregnancy tests from each truck, and I get two trucks a week, and they'll be gone."
Nathan Hodge has reported for Slate from Russia and Afghanistan.