Regiment's glory shadowed by link to McVeigh THE OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING

April 30, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

FORT RILEY, Kan. -- 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 Fort 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 McVeigh, who was decorated for his service in the Persian Gulf war. Members of Mr. 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 Mr. McVeigh at Fort Riley. "You've got one man who ruined it really. It's a shame. Charlie Company taught him better."

The arrest of Mr. McVeigh in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing 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 Mr. McVeigh is under heavy guard at a federal prison outside of Oklahoma City and Terry Lynn Nichols, another former soldier from the 16th, is being held in Wichita, Kan., on conspiracy and explosives charges, Fort 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 officers at Fort Riley have gone out of their way to scuttle any suggestion of ties between active duty personnel at the Kansas Army post and the bombing.

Located 125 miles west of Kansas City near Junction City, Fort 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.

Fort 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. Military records released by the Pentagon this week show that Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Nichols joined the Army on the same day in May 1988, and were sent to the same basic training center at Fort Benning, Ga., and assigned to the same platoon.

Mr. 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 won seven medals and a service ribbon, including the Bronze Star.

In the past few days, Army officials have played down Mr. McVeigh's accomplishments, saying that many of the awards were issued for simply enlisting in the Army and going to the Persian Gulf.

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