Talking 'Soldier To Soldier' Behind Bars

The idea to interview Tim McVeigh hit me during a morning hike in the Montana woods. I'd make a simple request-soldier to soldier. How, I wondered, could such a straight-arrow warrior go so apparently wrong? I was appalled by the tragedy in Oklahoma City, but I still wanted to understand this guy and felt his experience in the military might be a key. My plan was to send McVeigh a copy of my autobiography, "About Face," and explain how much of the young Sergeant Hackworth I recognized in him from all the news accounts that mentioned his love of the military. McVeigh was interested. "I want to talk to this man," he told his lawyer. And a few days later we were eyeball to eyeball.

It wasn't a ploy. Looking, into Tim McVeigh's eyes in the El Reno prison, I realized my gut feeling was right. He has what a lot of soldiers, good and had, have: fire in the belly. When we talked about the military, a change came over him: McVeigh suddenly sat straight in his chair. The army, he says, "teaches you to discover yourself. It teaches you who you are." I know what he means. To warriors, the military is like a religious order. It's not a job. It's a calling. Not too many people understand that calling or have what it takes.

McVeigh apparently did. The military gave him his first real challenge. He must have thought to himself, my God, I can do it--and I do it better than the rest of these guys. In less than three years he made sergeant; now he was bossing the buddies he'd started out with in basic training. I think the army probably helped him prove something to himself: that he was a man, that he mattered. He wanted to go the extra mile, perhaps be a hero. That's why he decided to go into Special Forces--to run with the best. "After I got through the leadership [train-ing] course, I recognized that I could do what needs to be done as a leader," he told me. "And there wouldn't be anything I'd really have to fear from that."

What happened to McVeigh after Desert Storm? My hunch is that after the war, McVeigh slipped into what's known among vets as a postwar hangover rye seen countless veterans, including myself, stumble home after the high-noon excitement of the killing fields, missing their battle buddies and the unique dangers and sense of purpose. Many lose themselves forever. McVeigh returned to the States to take Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, N.C. the most demanding course the army has to often He busted it. He had lost his hard edge, softened by the Iraqi desert; his out-of-shape condition was made worse by a new pair of boots. Like half of those who try out for selection training, he didn't make it, but seemingly accepted his defeat stoically. Did his failure drive him over the edge? Maybe, but McVeigh says no: "It wasn't the straw that broke anything." He planned to get in shape and come back.

Still, something snapped. Returning to Fort Riley, Kans. McVeigh distinguished himself as a sharpshooter, firing a perfect score of 1,000 points during a Bradley gunner competition-an accomplishment that few shooters ever achieve. But everything around him had changed. The army, in a post-cold-war drawdown, where one third of the warriors were getting pink slips, was filled with uncertainty, fear and a loss of mission. His basic-training buddies at Fort Benning, those pals who'd formed a sacred brotherhood of war, were checking out, saying, See you later. You're a lifer, but we're gone. These men had formed a tight bond. "You can literally love your battle buddies more than anyone else in the world," says McVeigh. When they shipped out he was devastated, wondering if he'd made a mistake by staying in the military.

Losing your war buddies is like losing an arm or a leg-or a loved one. McVeigh may have been crushed by the amputation. He moved off base and into downtown houses he shared with other soldiers. In December 1991 he quit the army. But it appears he couldn't adjust to civilian life. I'm no shrink, but I've seen this failure to adapt many times before. The rules change on you. You're used to order-having a dear objective, knowing just how to get the job done. Then you're on your own in a different world, with no structure and little exact sense of what you're supposed to do. Does this excuse the horrible crimes of which McVeigh stands accused? No. It doesn't even begin to explain them. All anyone can surmise is that McVeigh had lost his anchor. He kept in touch with his old comrades Terry Nichols and Mike Fortier. But McVeigh became a drifter, moving, maybe, toward that morning in Oklahoma City.

The Timothy McVeigh I talked with didn't seem like a baby killer. He was in high combat form, fully aware that his performance in the interview was almost a matter of life and death. If he'd been in combat, he'd have a medal for his coolness under fire. He might also be the most devious con man to ever come down the pike. At times McVeigh came across as the boy next door. But you might never want to let him into your house.