FORT LEWIS, Wash. - As first days go, it was a big one. Actually, it was more of a big afternoon.

The Fort Lewis Tax Center opened for business at 1 p.m. Jan. 21 to process 2008 returns. By the close of business that day, just 4 1/2 hours later, the center had helped 35 clients file for $124,281 in refunds, saving them $7,199 in tax preparation fees.

"We had a few false starts and a hiccup or two," said Capt. Steven Silver, the Tax Center's officer in charge, "but we got under way. Our waiting room's been full ever since."

The center's 15 Soldiers, two civilians and one volunteer have handled a steady stream of walk-in clients since the doors opened at the small, stand-alone building at the intersection of 41st Division Drive and Nevada Avenue, which once housed the Enlisted Spouses Club. On Jan. 23, Spc. Robert White of 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment was among them.

"I got everything done," said White, who was using the Tax Center for the first time. "I usually went to like H&R Block or whatever, because I never had anything like this available."

White said he was satisfied with the service he received at the center.

"Just getting in the door was the longest wait," White said. "After that, it kind of went pretty speedily."

Staff Sgt. Felimon Mogos, the Tax Center's NCO in charge, said that the average wait of about an hour would eventually get shorter.

"We're just now starting out," Mogos said. "Everybody's still in the training phase. But we're (getting) the hang of everything as we go along. As they're getting more experience, they're going by quicker and quicker."

Mogos said the average return was being prepared in between 15 and 30 minutes. Those involving property or foreign taxes take longer.

"We have appointments for those," Mogos said. "And those usually take about an hour, maybe an hour and a half."

According to Mogos, White wasn't alone in expressing satisfaction.

"They said things are going smoother," Mogos said. "Our waiting period right now is maybe an hour, but we're decreasing as we go."

Specialist Wendell Tanks of B Company, 2-23 Inf. began preparing taxes at the center last year. He's the only returnee on staff.

"The wait time was longer last year," Tanks said. "This year, it's a lot busier. You see a lot more people coming in this year."

That's fine with Silver.

"I don't understand why a Soldier would do anything other than come here, because we have highly trained people," Silver said. "And it doesn't cost the Soldier anything.

"They should be here, and we'll take care of them."

For more information, call the Tax Center at 967-1040.

Bob Reinert is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.