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Archive for Friday, December 9, 1994

STING

December 9, 1994

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Fear of Fort Riley's fate has troubled nearby residents and businesses for many years. Recent decisions have quelled the worst of those fears.

Fort Riley (ap) -- If the 1st Infantry Division leaves this Flint Hills Army post, the loss would be more than economic. It would strike sentimental and historic chords too, community leaders said.

``I've been stationed all over the world, and I've served in most places, and I've never seen the support we have here,'' said Fred Hepler, former garrison commander at Fort Riley and chief of staff of the 1st Infantry Division during Desert Storm.

Like many Fort Riley soldiers, Hepler picked Junction City as a place to retire. He said that after Desert Storm, he was ready to accept another position at Fort Leavenworth, but was urged to stay and head the Governor's Task Force in Support of Fort Riley. He said many retirees would be sad to see the 1st Infantry Division leave.

``When a guy fights with an outfit, you develop an attachment to it,'' Hepler said.

The Pentagon announced on Thursday it plans to reduce the Army's 12 divisions to 10 and scale back military and civilian personnel as well.

Kansas was the hardest-hit state. Fort Riley will lose an estimated 5,600 of the fort's 14,400 soldiers and 140 civilian workers by September 1996.

The plan calls for the headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division to be deactivated. Two maneuver brigades, however, would remain at Fort Riley under the command of Germany-based divisions. It has not been determined what units would stay.

The division's chief of staff, Col. Thomas F. Metz, said the plan is good news for the post. He said it shows the Army believes Fort Riley is a ``superb'' place to train and deploy troops.

``If all this plan were to come to fruition, there will be very little difference than training going on today,'' he said, adding that nearby towns ``are still going to hear tank fire and artillery impact.''

The specter of closing Fort Riley has been a recurring fear since the start of discussions about military reductions. That softened reaction Thursday.

``It's better than losing the whole thing,'' said Steve Havenstein, manager of a rental business in downtown Junction City.

Havenstein said some businesses would close. He said Junction City has a disproportionate number of fast food restaurants, bars and other businesses catering to the military.

``It's going to get down to the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest,'' he said.

But Havenstein and others, including Gov.-elect Bill Graves, felt Thursday's announcement might not be final. They said the state's top GOP politicians -- including Sens. Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum and Rep.-elect Sam Brownback -- might be able to turn things around in Washington.

``These proposals are not the final word in the process,'' said Graves, a Republican. ``We will work closely with Senators Dole and Kassebaum and Congressman Brownback in keeping the 1st Infantry Division's headquarters at Fort Riley.''

The division, initiated in 1917, was the first American division in World War I to go overseas and the first to invade Germany. In World War II, the Big Red One fought the Germans in North Africa and Sicily and went ashore on D-Day at Omaha Beach. More recently, the division fought in South Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War.

``The 1st Infantry Division is very much in the fabric of the community, and it would be a real sense of loss when they leave,'' said Randy Martin, head of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.

``There is a certain emotional thing happening here,'' said Martin. ``The 1st Infantry Division leaving Kansas is a pretty significant piece of history. I hope it's not permanent.''

But Martin and his counterpart in Junction City, David Nelson, said people also are relieved that after years of rumors, an announcement has been made about the future of Fort Riley.

Metz said the plan doesn't necessarily mean the division will cease to exist. In theory, he said, as the division flag is being deactivated it could be reassigned to a division somewhere else, and its rich history could help save it.

Hepler was confident the 1st Infantry Division would stay active. ``They'll fly that flag somewhere,'' he said.

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