FORT RILEY, KAN.
Capt. Bryan Cecrle acknowledges his paranoia with a smile. Yes, he still parks his new Dodge Charger at the far end of any parking lot, just to keep its spotless, cherry-red finish away from swinging doors and rogue shopping carts.
Then again, he reasons, after spending a year in the dust and sweat of Iraq, he has earned every one of his Charger's 425 horsepower, and the least he can do is keep his present to himself looking pretty.
Around Fort Riley, the low thrum of its engine is enough to turn heads - "It goes faster than it looks," says Captain Cecrle. But in truth, many of the soldiers have new toys of their own.
Here and nationwide, troops are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with a fistful of cash from hazard pay, reenlistment bonuses, and a simple lack of things to buy on the fortress-bases in Mesopotamia. Now, many of them aren't hesitating to spend.
For towns like Junction City, Kan., it is a welcome boost, as well as a reminder of how much they rely on the military for prosperity. For a number of the troops - particularly the single ones - it has become as much a rite of the return home as flag-waving parades, simply another way to reconnect to the life they left behind.
"They're looking to reward themselves for 12 months of hard duty," says Bob Muto of Bottger's Marine in nearby Manhattan, Kan.
And many have been rewarding themselves at his store. With Fort Riley less than a half hour away and Milford Lake not far beyond that, Bottger's has always had a healthy share of soldiers as customers. But during the past year in particular, he has seen his sales to soldiers increase 35 percent, boosting overall sales 10 percent.
"It seems like most of those soldiers coming back from Iraq have a pocket full of money," he says.
While deployed to war zones, soldiers can build up a small fortune. For each month in Iraq and Afghanistan, they receive $225 of hazard pay and $100 of hardship-duty pay. Those in the most dangerous jobs can get an additional $150 a month in hazardous-duty incentive pay, while soldiers with families can apply for a $250-a-month Family Separation Allowance. Reenlistment bonuses range from $10,000 to $40,000. All this money, as well as their wartime salary, is tax-free.
In some cases, it's simply too much temptation. Among the items that Sgt. Phillip Marcum bought on returning to Junction City from his stint in Iraq with the Army Reserve: a motorcycle and a 37-inch television. He has some IRAs for the future, but the extra pay from Iraq is "all gone," he says.