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Color Guard Returns Fort to Its Proud Cavalry Roots

Military: Army's mounted unit resurrects the traditions of the horse soldiers who helped open the American West.

March 16, 1997|DICK LIPSEY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FORT RILEY, Kan. — For Pfc. Jeremiah Bell, riding Clyde is the way to be all that he can be.

Bell, 21, grew up on a small farm near Haleyville, Ala., joined the Army and learned to be a howitzer mechanic.

Then he was sent to Fort Riley.

"I didn't have any idea there were horses in the Army," he said.

Now Bell--on his horse, Clyde--is one of 15 Fort Riley soldiers who re-create 19th-century cavalry life as part of the commanding general's Mounted Color Guard.

The soldiers and their mounts take part in parades and ceremonies in a five-state region as a living reminder of the history of the cavalry at Fort Riley.

And for Bell and the others, it's a labor of love.

"I enjoy the horses," Bell said, "and we get to travel a lot and show off the horses."

From March into December, the color guard is making an appearance somewhere or other nearly every day. The soldiers demonstrate their horsemanship and perform drills at parades, reenactments of battles and official ceremonies.

Troopers and horses of the unit are outfitted in the uniforms and equipment of the Civil War era, and they receive instruction from manuals used by Civil War cavalrymen.

Headgear includes a forage cap, copied from a style popular in the French Army. Slouch hats, or campaign hats, are worn occasionally by enlisted men.

"They use authentic McClellan saddles from that time period," said Lt. Col. Melanie Reeder, commander of the 1st Personnel Services Battalion, which includes the color guard.

All of the color guard's horses were donated by the public, said Reeder, a veteran horsewoman from Manassas, Va., who enjoys competing in endurance rides in her spare time.

The color guard is an all-volunteer outfit within the all-volunteer Army. About 250 to 275 soldiers apply for the unit every year, but only 20 to 25 are accepted, said 1st Sgt. Mark Atwood, of Chillicothe, Ohio, who is in charge of its daily operations.

"They first must be good soldiers and pass a riding test," Atwood said.

The soldiers then learn the skills they perform in public: riding with one hand while using a saber or shooting a pistol and negotiating obstacles. They also must know the history of the cavalry and Fort Riley.

Fort Riley was established in 1853 as one of a series of forts to protect emigration and commerce to the West.

It was named for Maj. Gen. Bennett C. Riley, who led the first military escort along the Santa Fe Trail in 1829.

After the Civil War, the fort helped protect railroad lines being built across Kansas. In 1866, George Custer took charge of the 7th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Riley and led it in campaigns the following year in western Kansas and eastern Colorado.

In later years, the 5th and 6th Cavalry regiments and the 16th Infantry Regiment were also based at the fort, and the famed "Buffalo Soldiers," the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments, were stationed there several times from the 1860s until the start of World War II.

Many of the frontier forts were closed by the late 19th century, but Fort Riley survived when Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan recommended that it become the "Cavalry Headquarters of the Army."

The color guard was formed four years ago by Sharon Wass de Czege, the wife of the post's deputy commanding general at the time.

"She couldn't believe the old home for cavalry didn't have mounted cavalry," Reeder said.

Pfc. Jeff Zemp, 20, of Castle Rock, Colo., was happy to swap his tank for a horse.

"I always liked riding horses," he said. "It's one of the best jobs in the Army."

Sgt. James Pfeffer, 27, of Cullman, Ala., says he enjoys the travel and meeting the public.

"I see more Army posts going back to their heritage," Pfeffer added.

Most of the horses are quarterhorses, and Atwood takes charge of them when they arrive in the unit and handles their initial training. After Atwood is satisfied, the horse is adopted by one rider for as long as that soldier is in the unit.

"Col. Reeder and I determine how safe they are," Atwood said. "Everything with a horse is high-risk. We've got to be confident the horse will tolerate noise and confusion."

"It takes a lot for horses to get used to sabers and cups banging on their sides," Reeder said.

Soldiers generally remain with the color guard for only a year or so because they have to maintain their skills in their regular military jobs.

Bell knows how long he wants to stay with the unit.

"I'll be here until they tell me I have to leave," he said.

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