The quiet on this Monday morning allowed thoughts to drift back to the glory days of horse cavalry that began at the Fort in 1853. Statues dot the grounds honoring the horses and the men that rode them to glory from this outpost first created to protect travelers along the California, Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. Not until the end of World War II did the Cavalry School cease operations at the Fort. Chief, the last cavalry mount on the rolls of the United States Army and retired in 1949, is now buried on the parade grounds after his death in 1968.
The quality of life at this military outpost came to be known as “the Life of Riley” thanks to its highly trained and decorated horse soldiers. Besides Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment, the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, known as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” called Fort Riley home. Even today, the housing and barracks surrounding the parade grounds age gracefully. Homes and duplexes are each updated, but the spirit of distant times remains in the mortar holding the native stones in place. Each home bares a small placard in the lawn noting the ranked officer in residence, including those living in the famed “Custer House” centered directly across from the parade ground.
However, the beauty and peace found on this gentle day belies the brutal reality that is war. While one statue salutes the glory of a cavalry soldier and his mount in rich detail, another statue depicts a weary horse and notes that one and a half million horses and mules were either killed, wounded or died from disease during the Civil War alone. Sitting on circular concrete pads, under the shade of tall trees, a variety of tanks and troop carriers from the World Wars no longer belch their fire. They do remind visitors of the transition Fort Riley made from the horse cavalry to mobile mechanical cavalry and to the infantry. Highlighting those changes is the impressive record of the post’s chief residents, the 1st Infantry Division, known famously as the Big Red One.
A final memorial, very modern for its throwback setting, honored “those who mobilized and deployed through Fort Riley who died in support of the global war on terrorism.” The list of fallen soldiers serves as a reminder why the Fort, spread over 100,000 acres, is still a vital element in our national security that requires deployment far away from this idyllic setting.
Later that afternoon, as we cycled west out of Manhattan, we rode beside some of the restricted Fort Riley artillery grounds. Bursts of machine gun fire echoed in the unusually still Flint Hills air. We rode mobilized on our two wheels, while just miles away units of the Big Red One trained on the same grounds as the cavalry soldiers of yore. Surprisingly, there was comfort in hearing that staccato sound. Call it the peace that comes thanks to those who still today willingly live “the Life of Riley.”