Welcome Makes Vet Forget Past

Commander Compares Gulf War With Vietnam

April 15, 1991|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff writer

When Lt. Col. Jim Wingate came home from Vietnam 22 years ago, he was instructed not to wear his Army uniform because somebody might spiton him.

Saturday, however, was a different story. The 45-year-oldcommander of Fort Meade's 85th Medical Battalion and his troops werewelcomed home by thousands of cheering family members and friends.

Just back from Saudi Arabia, Wingate and his troops were greeted at the Gaffney Sports Arena by 1,200 cheering people and an earful ofpatriotic music.

"Last night, I felt we had to do two homecomingsin one," said Wingate's wife, Sue Ann. "I was grateful for the way this country got behind the effort."

Wingate, who lives at Fort Meade, said his troops also appreciated the homecoming. "When I told thesoldiers what the ceremony would be like, they said it sounded like fun. They didn't realize how good Americans felt about the job they did."

Last October, Wingate was sent to the Persian Gulf, where he was placed in charge of 700 soldiers. His unit -- one of two permanently stationed at Fort Meade -- was responsible for setting up and running battalion aid stations behind the front lines. Wounded soldiers are taken to the aid stations, where they receive treatment or preliminary surgery, and then are moved to more permanent hospitals locatedin safer areas.

"The biggest challenge for us was keeping up withthe movement," Wingate said. "The mission wasn't difficult. The surgeons know what to do. The doctors know what to do."

The aid stations were constantly moving and had to be set up to be ready for patients within an hour of arrival, he said.

"The desert wasn't fun," hesaid. "We were in the middle of nowhere. We had to go to the middle of nowhere and establish a camp. Every time we would move, we would look around, and it would be the same thing."

In Vietnam, Wingate was a Medivac pilot, responsible for flying a helicopter to pick up wounded soldiers and fly them to aid stations. "The mission was rewarding itself," he said. "The soldiers would alwaysthank you for picking them up."

Wingate was sent to Vietnam in October 1968, after graduating from the University of Texas El-Paso earlier that year. He met Sue Ann while he was a senior standing in a class registration line.

The couple has three children, Matthew, 10, Mandy, 17 and Maribeth, 19. In June, the family has to move to San Antonio, Texas, where Wingate will lead a unit studying how to improve medical techniques.

During Desert Storm, Wingate said his battalion had no problems providing care for the wounded because casualties were low.

Once the ground war started, he said, his battalion treated nearly 800 people, more than half of them Iraqi soldiers, including 400 enemy troops that surrendered just before the start of the ground action.

"They were apprehensive and afraid of us," he said. "But we greated them in their own language and there was relief on their faces."

Wingate said the medics had a card printed up with certain Iraqi phrases printed on them, including: "How you doing?" and "Where are you hurt?"

"I was surprised that so many surrendered. The 24th Infantry had to keep dropping off guard units from their attack force to keep watch on the large number of surrendering prisoners."

One time, Wingate said, a group of medics missed a turn and ran into a group of Iraqi soldiers, who promptly surrendered.

"Our guys picked them up and carried they back," he said. "It is unusual for a hospital to capture enemy prisoners of war."

By the end of the war, the medics were spreadall over the front lines, with Wingate at a command center 110 mileswithin Iraq, near the road linking Baghdad to Basra.

While he wasthere, Wingate said, he drew comparisons with Vietnam.

"There wasa lot of alcohol and drugs in Vietnam," he said. "A lot of mistakes were made because of that. The songs the soldiers sangwere derogatorytoward the military. In Saudi Arabia, there was no drinking, no drugs. Everybody could concentrate on the mission.

"Religion was absent in Vietnam. Nobody heard the word God mentioned. Religion was almost non-existent. In Saudi Arabia, they had prayer times. Everybody would stop and pray. You see that and it makes you think about stopping and praying."

His wife said the family weathered the war well.

"We left the TV on all the time," she said. "We felt pretty close to each other. Once in a while, one of us would get upset. Eventually, we had to turn the TV off and do something else to keep busy."

For now, Wingate said he just wants to relax, indulge in some brownies and munch nachos. Maybe, he said, he will take a family vacation.

There's only one place he doesn't want to go. "No beach this summer."

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