After his arrest early yesterday morning, Stephen Wyatt Gregory told police that he was trying to make a point when he trained two loaded rifles on the employes and customers of a small Silver Spring bank branch Wednesday night and took seven people hostage. But he never said exactly what it was.

The only thing that seems clear is that the 27-year-old's flamboyant gesture, the long six-hour seige, marked the last peak of an irrational roller coaster ride that has pulled his adult life into and out of failure.

Gregory was decorated four times for his services in Vietnam: his conduct in combat won him the Purple Heart and a Combat Acotion Ribbon. At home, in the years before and after the war, his conduct won him one four-month prison term and a series of fines, for offenses ranging from loitering to assault and battery.

He was married at the age of 22 to a 17-year-old from Oklahoma; they had a daughter to whom he was devoted. But the marriage ended in divorce about two years later, neighbors say, Carrie Coulson Gregory took the little girl back to the Southwest; about a year ago, neighbors say, the little girl died.

When he came back from the war after 2 1/2 years in the service, Steve Gregory was a copral, a decorated veteran, and, for a time, an unemployment statistic.

"He was a victim of the times," said one old family friend. "He had trouble getting a job, was married young, got divorce . . . But he was a good boy."

Eventually, the employment trouble worked itself out and Gregory latched on as a bill collector with a Beltsville firm, Eastern Credit Association, where he collected overdue bills over the telephone. It was the first of a series of credit agencies he would work for, leave, and come back to, as his career fluctuated between erratically steady advancement and sudden setbacks.

"He was very effective," recalls Jerome Glazer the owner of Eastern, which is based not far from the Greenbelt area of Prince George's County where Gregory grew up.

"His only problem was that you couldn't count on him. He wouldn't show up on some days; he just seemed to have problems, wife problems, girlfriend, family problems, problem problems."

"He just wasn't dependable," Glazer added.

Another employer, who asked not to be named, remembers Gregory a little differently. "He was just a good worker; no complaints."

Still, between 1973 and 1974 he moved in and out of three jobs with bill-collecting companies, then into a position as an employment counselor at V-M Associates in Silver Spring. whose offices are only a few blocks from the Citizen's Bank branch.

"It takes a good deal of intuition to be successful at this business and he was successful at it," said a spokesman for the firm. "He got along well with employes; he got along well with our clients."

He also breezed through the required licensing inspection by the Maryland Department of Labor and Industry. He swore to them in September, 1974 that he had never been arrested or convicted; by that date he had been arrested seven times and spent four months in jail.

Before he left his employment with V-M, he was arrest cost him only $55 - considerably less than the $5,050 he had been fined two years earlier for a conviction of disorderly conduct and malicious destruction of property, according to records on Montgomery County District Court.

When he was married in 1972, he lived on Huntley Avenue in Silver Spring; when he went to work at V-M in 1974, he listed his address as New Dale Road in Chevy Chase.

Sometime afterward he moved into a condominium in Largo, in Prince George's County. In 1975, he was evicted from there for nonpayment of fees, according to court papers.

It was shortly before Christmas, neighbors say, that he came back to the Milford Avenue home in Silver Spring that his parents bought from his uncle while Gregory was away in the Marines.

He was getting ready to start something new. He told District Court Judge Martin Becker yesterday. He was scheduled to start today in a trainig program for apprentice steamfitters, he said.

"He was a good man," neighbors said yesterday. "He worked hard."