Tacoma residents angry, defensive

Media's focus on suspect's military service decried as slandering the Army

Search For The Sniper

October 26, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

TACOMA, Wash. - This city of 200,000 on Puget Sound can seem like one big military town, with both Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base sprawling to the south.

So it's not surprising to hear residents sounding angry and a bit defensive when talk turns to sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad's nine years of Army service, some of it spent at Fort Lewis.

Sometimes it is hard to tell what people find more annoying - that he was even in the Army, or that his military career has been mentioned time and time again in news reports since his arrest Thursday.

"It's kind of a black eye for the community," said Rollie Moore, proprietor of Rollie's Tavern, just a few yards from the end of a McChord runway where giant cargo planes take off and land.

In 1985 Muhammad, then known as John Williams, enlisted in the Army. He served in the gulf war as a combat engineer in 1991 and was discharged from Fort Lewis in 1994, and he continued to live in Tacoma.

That was eight years ago, and some people like to think of it as ancient history. Among them is Nick, a soldier who said Army rules prevent him from being fully identified in print.

Nick said the news media have implied wrongly that Muhammad - rated an "expert" with an M-16 - received specialized sniper training in the Army, or that the Army culture played a role in the deadly shootings he is suspected of carrying out in the Washington, D.C., area.

"Military are trained killers, loose cannons - that's the message," he said, after getting a buzz cut at Tom's Barber Shop on Union Avenue, a strip near the base that teems with soldiers in fatigues. "I think it's slandering the military."

Some say Muhammad has besmirched the Army's image.

"He has let that fraternity down," said Brian Borgelt, a former Fort Lewis staff sergeant who owns the Bull's Eye Shooter Supply gun shop, which may have sold the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle used in the sniper shootings. "He has let the shooting community down."

The view was a little different, however, down the road at VFW Post 2329, where a half-dozen regulars sat around the L-shaped bar yesterday morning sipping beers.

Muhammad's Army past has been much on the mind of Vietnam veteran Greg Shepard.

"What troubles me is the military trains people to do exactly what he did - shoot people," Shepard, 52, said through a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. "It doesn't surprise me someone could be in the military and do that."

Shepard was quick to point out that he was not blaming the Army for the shootings.

Still, he could not help but think of another former soldier in the news here lately: Robert Lee Yates Jr., an admitted serial killer whose murderous rampage in the state of Washington began in the mid-1990s after he left the Army.

"I'm seeing the similarities," Shepard said.

Some of Shepard's friends offered their own scathing opinions of Muhammad and his soldiering stint, but nearly all were in language unfit for a newspaper. "They're pretty ticked off," summed up manager Karen McClendon.

Understandably, officials at the Army base are distancing themselves from Muhammad.

"Fort Lewis is well known for being a good neighbor," said spokeswoman Brendalyn Carpenter. Soldiers are "tasked" to march in community parades, for example, and officers frequently give speeches to local groups.

Though Tacoma has a busy port and is attracting newcomers fleeing the high cost of living in Seattle 30 miles to the north, the military presence remains huge. According to Carpenter, 20,000 military personnel are assigned to the 86,000-acre Fort Lewis, and the payroll alone is $580 million.

"Fort Lewis was definitely not the only [Army] installation he was assigned to," she added. "It was a personal thing with him."

Tacoma also has the dubious distinction of having been home to a serial killer with no military background. Ted Bundy went to high school here and had a paper route, said Moore, who has owned Rollie's for 27 years.

"We've got our share of weirdos," he said.

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