* History Commons: Timothy McVeigh: March 24, 1988 – Late 1990: Future Oklahoma City Bombers Join Army.
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Future Oklahoma City Bombers Join Army.
24 March 1988 – Late 1990, Timothy McVeigh; History Commons
Terry Nichols, a 33-year-old Michigan farmer and house husband described as “aimless” by his wife Lana, joins the US Army in Detroit. He is the oldest recruit in his platoon and his fellow recruits call him “Grandpa.” During basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, Nichols meets fellow recruits Timothy McVeigh (see 1987-1988), who joined the Army in Buffalo, New York, and Arizona native Michael Fortier. All three share an interest in survivalism, guns, and hating the government, particularly Nichols and McVeigh; unit member Robin Littleton later recalls, “Terry and Tim in boot camp went together like magnets.” For McVeigh, Nichols is like the older brother he never had; for Nichols, he enjoys taking McVeigh under his wing. Nichols also tells McVeigh about using ammonium nitrate to make explosives he and his family used to blow up tree stumps on the farm. The three are members of what the Army calls a “Cohort,” or Cohesion Operation Readiness and Training unit, which generally keeps soldiers together in the same unit from boot camp all the way through final deployment. It is in the Army that McVeigh and Nichols become enamored of the novel The Turner Diaries(see 1978), which depicts a United States racially “cleansed” of minorities and other “undesirables” (McVeigh is already familiar with the novel—see 1987-1988). All three are sent to the 11 Bravo Infantry division in Fort Riley, Kansas, where they are finally separated into different companies; McVeigh goes to tank school, where he learns to operate a Bradley fighting vehicle as well as becoming an outstanding marksman. [NEW YORK TIMES, 5/4/1995; NEW YORK TIMES, 5/28/1995;STICKNEY, 1996, PP. 91-95; PBS FRONTLINE, 1/22/1996; SERRANO, 1998, PP. 30; NICOLE NICHOLS, 2003]
McVeigh later says he joined the Army because he was disillusioned with the “I am better than you because I have more money” mindset some people have, and because he was taken with the Army’s advertisement that claimed, “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.” [PBS FRONTLINE, 1/22/1996]
Fellow unit member Specialist Ted Thorne will later recall: “Tim and I both considered ourselves career soldiers. We were going to stay in for the 20-plus years, hopefully make sergeant major. It was the big picture of retirement.”[SERRANO, 1998, PP. 31]
Nichols Leaves Army, Tells of Plans to Form ‘Own Military Organization’
In the spring of 1989, Nichols, who planned on making a career of military service, leaves the Army due to issues with an impending divorce and child care, but his friendship with McVeigh persists. Fellow soldier Glen Edwards will later say that he found Nichols’s choice to serve in the Army unusual, considering his virulent hatred of the US government: “He said the government made it impossible for him to make a living as a farmer. I thought it strange that a 32-year-old man would be complaining about the government, yet was now employed by the government. Nichols told me he signed up to pull his 20 years and get a retirement pension.” Before Nichols leaves, he tells Edwards that he has plans for the future, and Edwards is welcome to join in. Edwards will later recall, “He told me he would be coming back to Fort Riley to start his own military organization” with McVeigh and Fortier. “He said he could get any kind of weapon and any equipment he wanted. I can’t remember the name of his organization, but he seemed pretty serious about it.” [NEW YORK TIMES, 5/28/1995; STICKNEY, 1996, PP. 96, 101]
McVeigh Continues Army Career, Described as ‘Strange,’ ‘Racist,’ but ‘Perfect Soldier’
McVeigh does not leave the Army so quickly. He achieves the rank of sergeant and becomes something of a “model soldier.” He plans on becoming an Army Ranger. However, few get to know him well; only his closest friends, such as Nichols, know of his passion for firearms, his deep-seated racism, or his hatred for the government. McVeigh does not see Nichols during the rest of his Army stint, but keeps in touch through letters and phone calls. Friends and fellow soldiers will describe McVeigh as a man who attempts to be the “perfect soldier,” but who becomes increasingly isolated during his Army career; the New York Times will describe him as “retreating into a spit-and-polish persona that did not admit nights away from the barracks or close friendships, even though he was in a ‘Cohort’ unit that kept nearly all the personnel together from basic training through discharge.” His friends and colleagues will recall him as being “strange and uncommunicative” and “coldly robotic,” and someone who often gives the least desirable assignments to African-American subordinates, calling them “inferior” and using racial slurs. An infantryman in McVeigh’s unit, Marion “Fritz” Curnutte, will later recall: “He played the military 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All of us thought it was silly. When they’d call for down time, we’d rest, and he’d throw on a ruck sack and walk around the post with it.” A fellow soldier, Todd Regier, will call McVeigh an exemplary soldier, saying: “As far as soldiering, he never did anything wrong. He was always on time. He never got into trouble. He was perfect. I thought he would stay in the Army all his life. He was always volunteering for stuff that the rest of us wouldn’t want to do, guard duties, classes on the weekend.” Sergeant Charles Johnson will later recall, “He was what we call high-speed and highly motivated.” McVeigh also subscribes to survivalist magazines and other right-wing publications, such as Guns & Ammo and his favorite, Soldier of Fortune (SoF), and keeps an arsenal of weapons in his home (see November 1991 – Summer 1992).
Regier will later tell a reporter: “He was real different. Kind of cold. He wasn’t enemies with anyone. He was kind of almost like a robot. He never had a date when I knew him in the Army. I never saw him at a club. I never saw him drinking. He never had good friends. He was a robot. Everything was for a purpose.” [NEW YORK TIMES, 5/4/1995; STICKNEY, 1996, PP. 86;SERRANO, 1998, PP. 30; NICOLE NICHOLS, 2003]
McVeigh is taken with the increasing number of anti-government articles and advertisements in SoF, particularly the ones warning about what it calls the impending government imposition of martial law and tyranny, and those telling readers how to build bombs and other items to use in “defending” themselves from government aggression. [SERRANO, 1998, PP. 27-28]
McVeigh is not entirely “by the book”; he knows his friend Michael Fortier is doing drugs, but does not report him to their superior officers. [PBS FRONTLINE, 1/22/1996]
McVeigh is promoted to sergeant faster than his colleagues; this is when he begins assigning the undesirable tasks to the four or five black specialists in the group, tasks that would normally be performed by privates. “It was well known, pretty much throughout the platoon, that he was making the black specialists do that work,” Regier will recall. “He was a racist. When he talked he’d mention those words, like n_gger. You pretty much knew he was a racist.” The black soldiers complain to a company commander, earning McVeigh a reprimand. Sergeant Anthony Thigpen will later confirm Regier’s account, adding that McVeigh generally refuses to socialize with African-Americans, and only reluctantly takes part in company functions that include non-whites. Captain Terry Guild will later say McVeigh’s entire company has problems with racial polarization, “[a]nd his platoon had some of the most serious race problems. It was pretty bad.” In April 1989, McVeigh is sent to Germany for two weeks for a military “change-up program.” While there, he is awarded the German equivalent of the expert infantryman’s badge. In November 1989, he goes home for Thanksgiving with Fortier, and meets Fortier’s mother Irene. In late 1990, McVeigh signs a four-year reenlistment agreement with the Army. [NEW YORK TIMES, 5/4/1995]
McVeigh Goes on to Serve in Persian Gulf War
McVeigh will serve two tours of duty in the Persian Gulf War, serving honorably and winning medals for his service (see January – March 1991 and After). Nichols and McVeigh will later be convicted of planning and executing the Oklahoma City bombing (see 8:35 a.m. – 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995).