Nate Winkler, local Marine saw Iraq up close and personal

Nate Winkler just completed a five-year hitch in he U.S. Marine Corpse. He’s back in town with his wife and baby following completion of a tour of duty in Iraq.

A 1998 graduate of Charlotte High in Punta Gorda, Fla. he joined he Marines right out of school. Trained as an aircraft control electronics maintenance specialist, his job was to set up mobile radar units in the field and keep them operating.

Winkler was attached to Marine Support Squadron 371. Its mission was to establish forward arming and refueling points for helicopters, known in the business as “FARPS.”

His unit went to war Feb. 19, 1991 three days after the U.S. main force headed for Baghdad. They were attached to an outfit moving gasoline up to the front in 5,000 gallons tanker trucks.

They were unescorted for most of the 250 miles they traveled in Iraqi territory, from the Kuwait border they headed for Baghdad. The convoy consisted of 40 vehicles, five or six 18-wheelers full of fuel, five or six ordinance trucks and the rest support vehicles.

Winkler and his contingent had three Humvees full of special equipment an radios. When they would reach an area designated as a forward base, they would set up shop and begin landing the attack and transport helicopters for refueling and rearming.

Everything went relatively smoothly until the convoy reached the outskirts of An Nasariah, a city of 500,000, halfway between the Kuwait borer and Baghdad.

“We pulled up along the road outside the city on March 26 as it was getting dusk,” Winkler said. “Marine ground troops told us we weren’t going through at night because it wasn’t safe.

“They told us to get out of our vehicles and check out the area before the sun set, in case we were attacked during the night, we’d have some idea about the terrain. I was the only one up at the head of the column with night vision goggles,” he said.

I was sent up front to check out the area and see what was going on. With my goggles on I could see movement up the road a ways,” Winkler recalled. “The next thing I knew, bullets started flying from the area I had just been checking out. There was a hail of AK-47 and 25-mm high explosives coming in. We had guys who had been standing around talking who went down immediately.

“We returned fire and started suppressing the enemy fire best we could. All we had were M-16 rifles, a couple of light machine-guns, some .50-cals and two or three grenade launchers” he said.

“The firefight went on for about an hour. We were lucky because they were shooting blind at us. We only sustained three or four casualties and nobody ended up dying,” Winkler noted.

“We radioed back for air support. We ended up getting an A-10,” he said, referring to a Wart Hog fighter-bomber who provided the Americans with air support. That ended it and we moved on the next day.”

“We finally reached ‘Fenway Park,’ what the base was called – 150 miles away. It provided the capability of bringing in C-130 transport planes and lots of helicopters. We spent the next three or four weeks there as the war wound down and American and British forces removed Saddam Hussein’s regime from control of the country.

When Winkler’s unit first went into Iraq, the people in the street were glad to see the Americans. Over a period of weeks, their attitudes began to change for the worse as conditions for everyone deteriorated.

“We’d get to a little village of 5,000 or 10,000 people and probably every one of them would be lining the streets. They were ecstatic that we were there,” he said. “We’d slow down and give them food and water as we passed by. They appreciation and joy these people had was incredible.

“Later we started having problems with some of the people. We started seeing military-age men in their 20s and 30s out shaking our hands and accepting our food as we passed through. Then when the sun went down they’d put on a uniform and come fight us,” he said.

“From a troop standpoint, it was nasty. It’s even worse for our guys over there now because they’re not fighting a defined enemy,” Winkler noted. “Even though we brought these people freedom and democracy, I’m not sure they’re ready for it.

“I think the situation in Iraq is gonna get worse before it gets better. I don’t think the American public or the Bush Administration is going to be able to tolerate the situation without outside help from the United Nations,” he said.

“The U.S. isn’t going o continue to put up with soldiers being killed over there every day.”

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2003 and is republished with permission.

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