The 16th Infantry Regiment here boasts a long and distinguished combat record. It fought at Manassas and Gettysburg. It was the first unit to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944. It has earned its motto: “Always Ready.”
But the 16th’s storied history is in the process of adding an embarrassing footnote. For the last week, a small army of FBI agents has swarmed over the tree-lined, campus-like setting of Ft. Riley, interviewing soldiers about a former sergeant who is the prime suspect in the worst civilian bombing in American history.
Current and former soldiers of the 16th say they are furious that the stellar reputation of their unit is being tarnished by the arrest of Timothy J. McVeigh, who was decorated for his service in the Persian Gulf War. Members of McVeigh’s old unit, C Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Mechanized Infantry, are dismayed.
“I’m very proud of Charlie Company and the years I spent there,” said Fritz Curnutte of West Virginia, who served with McVeigh at Ft. Riley. “You’ve got one man who ruined it really. It’s a shame. Charlie Company taught him better.”
Last week’s arrest of McVeigh in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing--which has claimed 118 victims and left about 90 missing--is the third tragedy to hit the regiment in seven weeks. Two separate shootings in or near the unit’s Custer Hill barracks left three soldiers dead, one wounded and an entire battalion stunned, triggering a series of counseling sessions and suicide prevention seminars.
Now, as McVeigh is under heavy guard at a federal prison outside Oklahoma City and Terry Lynn Nichols, another former soldier from the 16th, is being held in Wichita on conspiracy and explosives charges, Ft. Riley personnel are asking if the elusive “John Doe No. 2" is also a former member of the unit.
Top defense officials in Washington and commanding officers at Ft. Riley have gone out of their way to scuttle any suggestion of ties between active duty personnel at the Kansas Army post and the Oklahoma City bombing. They have stressed that there is no evidence anyone involved in the bombing is enlisted in the military or assigned to the 16th.
“The actions of those individuals who perpetrated (the bombing) are absolutely contrary to everything that the U.S. military stands for and, in fact, has died for,” Pentagon spokesman Dennis Boxx said at a briefing Thursday. “I think the 26 million veterans in this country and the 1.5 million active duty personnel would take great umbrage at the suggestion that their service in the military in some way was anything other than a benefit to this country and the American way of life.”
Nor should the apprehension of suspects who once served at Ft. Riley “cast a black cloud on all those who work and live here,” said Maj. Ben Santos, a Fort Riley spokesman. “Ft. Riley has been here for more than 140 years doing what it does best--protecting our nation’s interests,” he said.
Located 125 miles west of Kansas City near Junction City, Ft. Riley was established in 1853 to battle Indians in the Kansas Territory. The Army post was named after Maj. Gen. Bennett C. Riley, who led the first military escort along the Santa Fe Trail in 1829.
Ft. Riley is home of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division--"The Big Red One” and the first military unit to cross the Iraqi border during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The 16th Infantry was formed in 1867 by consolidating two infantry regiments, one of which took part in the bloody Civil War battles at Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania. At Gettysburg, the unit lost half its men. The 16th Infantry has seen action on numerous occasions since.
Military records released by the Pentagon this week show that McVeigh and Nichols joined the Army on the same day in May, 1988, and were sent to the same basic training center at Ft. Benning, Ga., and assigned to the same platoon.
McVeigh, who enlisted at age 20, rose quickly through the ranks during his 3 1/2-year stint. He served as an infantryman and was trained as a gunner in armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles before being promoted to sergeant.
“He performed well in what he did and what he was asked to do,” said Norman Adkins, 26, of Charleston, W. Va, who served with McVeigh in the Gulf War.
McVeigh won seven medals and a service ribbon, including the Bronze Star.
“His selfless actions were key to the flawless execution of the mission, the liberation of Kuwait and the ultimate defeat of the Iraqi Army,” reads McVeigh’s Bronze Star certificate. “Sgt. McVeigh’s flawless devotion to duty truly exemplifies the finest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon him, the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), and the United States Army.”
In the past few days, Army officials have downplayed McVeigh’s accomplishments, saying that many of the awards were issued for simply enlisting in the Army and going to the Persian Gulf.
“The Army has changed a lot. There were literally thousands of Bronze stars given out during the Gulf War,” said Ft. Riley spokesman Gary Skidmore. McVeigh was cited “for not screwing up (and) doing a good job over there.”
But Skidmore acknowledged that “nothing in McVeigh’s records indicate that he was anything but a good soldier.”
McVeigh left the service on Dec. 31, 1991. Nichols, who enlisted when he was 33, received a hardship discharge after less than a year of active duty.
Ft. Riley commanders refused to permit any interviews of soldiers assigned to the 16th or to allow reporters to walk around the regiment’s barracks without an escort. The leaders of the 16th also declined to accept questions.
In interviews away from the post, soldiers who serve in McVeigh’s old unit said they were upset that anyone from the 16th could have participated in the nation’s worst terrorist attack.
One infantryman, who requested anonymity, said that the negative publicity surrounding McVeigh’s arrest is “bringing down morale a bit. We can’t believe the (suspects) are associated with the 16th.”
James Crager, 28, of New Burlington, Ohio, who served with McVeigh for several years and was questioned by the FBI, said: “I’m frustrated about it. Charlie Company was the best time of my life. That’s what I try to think about. Not what’s in the news every night.”
Several soldiers volunteered that McVeigh’s arrest compounded the difficulty of coping with the two recent acts of violence in the 16th Infantry’s barracks.
Spec. Brian Stoutenburg, 24, of Grand Blanc, Mich., was found dead of an apparent suicide in his quarters on April 6.
On March 2, Pfc. Maurice Wilford, 20, of Cleveland, armed with a 12-gauge shotgun and apparently angry with his supervisor, randomly shot and killed two other soldiers and wounded another before fatally shooting himself, authorities said.
Soldiers at Ft. Riley said that the shootings shook the entire 16th Infantry.
Times staff writers Art Pine in Washington and Melissa Healy in Kansas also contributed to this story.