CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Robert J. Winthers
Robert Winthers was born in Long Branch, New Jersey in April 1947, and was raised in Middletown, New Jersey. He knew nothing about the military when he received a draft notice in the summer of 1967, following his graduation from high school. Though Winthers had been conscripted, the recruiters convinced him to volunteer instead. “If you sign up right now,” they told him, “for three years you can go anywhere you want in the world.” He did travel the world, but not with choice; he was sent to Vietnam, which he also knew nothing about.
Winthers attended basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and advanced infantry training at Fort Eustace, Virginia. “Everything they taught you was ‘kill, kill, kill’,” he said. Afterwards, Winthers flew to Oakland, California to wait for overseas departure. For the first two days in Oakland, he stayed with other trainees in “very nice” barracks and had freedom to roam the base. On the third day, however, the men were locked in a large garage with beds. “I thought it was pretty neat,” Winthers joked about the strange circumstances. He soon departed on a commercial flight to Danang, Vietnam. The flight felt “like a vacation,” in contrast to the post-landing confusion that set in as he travelled to his unit, the 197th Infantry Brigade.
Winthers’ parents did not worry much about their son’s future, but he did. “My mind was all messed up, because I didn’t know what to do over there,” he said. Fortunately, his fellow soldiers provided relief. “Everybody treated us like a family… we just kind of looked out for each other.” Winthers learned from others, particularly the NCOs. When he later served as an NCO in both Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, Winthers in turn imparted this experience to his younger comrades, most of whom welcomed the support.
As a foot soldier, Winthers served on reconnaissance and patrol missions. Sometimes he patrolled via truck, other times on foot. Occasionally, a Huey helicopter would transport him to the mission zone. Patrols were usually led by an officer and squad leader. Everyone stayed together and watched all angles, cautiously proceeding through the jungle. An experienced specialist would proceed ahead of the column to watch for mines, punji sticks, and other obstacles, and everyone did exactly as he ordered. “You don’t do something stupid and try to do it on your own,” Winthers noted, “because you might not make it.” Though most action occurred in Vietnam, his unit occasionally travelled to Laos.
Winthers did not enjoy the living conditions in Vietnam. His shelter from the hot, muggy weather was a sandbag hut, known as a “hooch.” There were few opportunities for showers, and everyone smelled. He was lucky to get six or seven hours of sleep each night, less if he remained up late on guard. “Every day you wake up you don’t know what’s gonna happen the next day there… you work day-by-day.” One thing Winthers proudly spoke about was his military jeep, which he loved to drive.
It was difficult to distinguish friend from foe when fighting the Viet Cong, and therefore Winthers had to be wary of civilians. Though he had faith in his close unit members, there was even suspicion of fellow Americans. Winthers heard many stories of harassment in the ranks, as well as “fragging,” or the homicide of officers by subordinates. “They told you, don’t trust nobody,” he remarked.
Despite these circumstances, Winthers suffered no illness or wounds in Vietnam. Some friends were killed in action; with a heavy heart, he mentioned several who were claimed by a mine. Winthers discussed at length the psychological tribulations associated with the fighting and killing. “I feel bad that some of the guys I knew, they got killed. I just wish it would have never happened. Sometimes you’re like, why are we here? I don’t want to shoot these people… Who started this whole thing?”
Winthers attributed many of the poor experiences he had in Vietnam to the system. “They ran you like monkeys going there,” he lamented. “Like an assembly line… And as soon as you got done, you got your DD-214 thing, they tell you, go get a taxi, get to the airport… Then you didn’t even know if you wanted to come home.” When asked if he was proud of his Vietnam service, Winthers replied, “I really don’t know.” He felt that he had been too young to properly judge; he simply followed orders.
Unfortunately, the reception at home did not aid these thoughts; Winthers endured isolation and ignorance. Instead of a welcoming, he stood alone with his duffel bags at Newark airport. People asked him about his “vacation” and labelled him a “baby killer.” Even his family did not recognize his sacrifices, and Winthers recalled walking in circles in the yard with no one to relate to.
Winthers received a Distinguished Service Medal and a Vietnam 25th Anniversary Commemorative Medal from the State of New Jersey, but these did nothing to assuage the memories that haunted him. He did not visit Vietnam memorials until decades after the war. Upon finally seeing the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, Winthers still refused to read the names on the wall. He also struggled when visiting the New Jersey Vietnam memorial. “I didn’t run there to go look at who was on the board, I just kind of remembered some of the people… and I walked away.” Later, returning from Desert Storm, Winthers hesitated to get off the plane due to fears of being ridiculed as after Vietnam.
Without support, Winthers struggled to adapt to civilian life. “I hated the army after what they did to us,” he said, with no intention of joining again. After a year, however, someone suggested he join the National Guard to occupy himself with familiar work, and Winthers took this advice. His first post was at the Sea Girt base, in the building currently occupied by the National Guard Museum. He worked “B Company,” (Part of the 50th Main Support Battalion, a transportation unit) driving fuel tankers and tractor trailers.
Winthers next moved to the 114th Infantry in Freehold. He hiked, conducted night patrols, and drove armored personnel carriers. Winthers enjoyed his time there; these missions finally gave him some relief, allowing him to relive his Vietnam service, but “in a good way, where you had fun.” Unfortunately, an incident several years later forced him to leave Freehold. His company kept a can of shared funds in the breakroom refrigerator. He witnessed the first sergeant stealing this money, but without evidence he was unable to enact justice. The first sergeant blamed another soldier for the theft, and then ordered Winthers back to his previous post. Many of his fellow soldiers followed him back to Sea Girt, earning him the nickname “the Godfather.”
After some time at Sea Girt, Winthers was transferred to Dover, New Jersey. Then, in 1990, he was deployed in Operation Desert Storm. Winthers lauded his commanders in the Gulf War, but disdained some fellow soldiers, who were serving not to work, but solely for pay. Fortunately, his captain allowed him to personally select six trusted men to accompany him on supply missions between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, some of which were memorable. Returning from one, Winthers halted at a gathering of people to photograph a camel. As it turned out, a wedding was taking place. The groom believed Winthers hailed from Heaven, and welcomed him to enjoy dancing and the company of the people. On other missions, he “snuck off” to see the burning oil wells that the Iraqi Army had left in their wake.
Winthers’s unit encamped at a compound in Doha, Kuwait. The warehouses were filled with stacked lumber, which he was tasked with clearing to free space for military equipment. Setting off with the cargo, Winthers came across a fishing village that initially appeared to be abandoned, but a man, whose appearance and laugh he compared to a character from Raiders of the Lost Ark, soon came forward. After Winthers explained that he had lumber to give away, the man spoke in Arabic, prompting many people to appear “out of nowhere” to unload the truck, which they did in under five minutes.
Happy to have a ‘customer’, Winthers made several more trips delivering lumber. The villagers themselves (who used the lumber to build their houses) were even more pleased, and they referred to him as the “Second King of Kuwait” (a title he still jokes to his friends about). The commoners built him a wooden boat model and cooked him fish and shrimp, while the wealthier citizens bequeathed gold and offered to buy him an oil well and a Mercedes if he stayed in Kuwait. When Winthers had to redeploy on rotation, the village threw a large party for him. Some villagers, fearful that Saddam Hussein would return to terrorize them without Winthers’s protection, cried when he departed. After his farewell, they erected a sign at the settlement entrance which named the village in his honor.
The news of Winthers’s success ruffled some feathers, prompting the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command to investigate for possible illegalities. However, Winthers’s leaders explained how his deeds had helped the Kuwaiti people and American cause. Thanks to their efforts, Winthers instead received an award, albeit 15 years later.
After several months overseas, Winthers returned to Sea Girt. For ten years, he resumed his normal duties of truck driving, until his routine was shattered by the September 11, 2001 attacks. Fortunately, Winthers did not lose any family members to the disaster, but he met people whose loved ones perished. The events have always kept him on alert when planes fly low overhead.
Based at the Teaneck and Jersey City armories, Winthers conducted numerous transport missions in the weeks following 9/11. He drove morgue trailers to Liberty State Park, delivered food and supplies to Ground Zero, shuttled secret cargo between an abandoned airport in Brooklyn and the FBI base in Newark, and made other trips to warehouses in Bayonne and to Newark airport. Winthers also recalled his meeting with a colleague who photographed the attack while performing camerawork on Ellis Island.
In 2003, Winthers and some fellow soldiers volunteered to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom. They joined the 253rd Transportation Company and first deployed to Camp Elm, Iraq, where he slept on a truck bed and endured sandstorms “so bad that you couldn’t see the vehicle in front of you.” Winthers often got no more than three to four hours of sleep a night (a reality which persisted through his entire tour). After some time there, the unit successfully petitioned and were moved to a base in Kuwait.
In one case, Winthers was detached from the 253rd to conduct a transport mission under another unit. The two young officers in charge believed they knew the route and refused to consult another soldier’s GPS. Unfortunately, the officers got lost, and a 12-hour mission turned into a 54-hour mishap. From then on, Winthers remained attached to the 253rd.
The 253rd deployed in support of the 10th Mountain Division and the 101st Airborne. Though they “didn’t do much” with the 10th Mountain, Winthers often served as an infantryman on raids with the 101st. Many operations were conducted at night, targeting enemy weapons’ caches in villages. The troops would surround the village, using Iraqi trucks to not alert any militants who could distinguish the sounds of American vehicles. They would then advance, using clicking and hissing noises rather than speech to discreetly communicate. Sometimes there would also be Apache helicopters hovering nearby. Once in the village, sledgehammers were used to break down doors. The weapons would be secured, and any insurgents detained; both were turned over to the Kuwaiti police. After such raids, Winthers would sometimes be lectured by 101st soldiers, who implored him to take careful note of environmental details, to keep himself and his fellow soldiers safe on raids.
Retreating from their military bases during the invasion, the Iraqi Army left behind much military equipment. Winthers personally saw warehouses full of tanks, machine guns, and other equipment. The locals subsequently scavenged these bases and supplied themselves with the unguarded stockpiles. The equipment turned up everywhere; Winthers even caught children selling mortar rounds. Unfortunately, much of it ended up in the hands of the Iraqi insurgents. Strangely, Winthers also recalled once seeing stacks of US money sitting in a warehouse, though he never knew the story behind it.
Winthers was with the first unit to enter Balad Airbase, one of the sites. (Unbeknownst to him, he nearly crossed paths with his cousin, who was in the US Air Force, while encamped there!) Winthers saw several dozen Iraqi fighter jets, that were covered by camouflage nets amidst mud huts, and thus had been missed by coalition airstrikes. (The planes were ultimately scrapped.)
Winthers enjoyed explaining how he obliviously ended up near where Saddam Hussein was captured. While running a transport mission, his convoy approached a vehicle accident between a US Army truck and an Iraqi vehicle. His superiors left him behind with orders to guard the wreck, and ambiguously said that “someone” would find them in three days. Half an hour later, a Humvee arrived, and the driver told him to encamp in a nearby bombed-out building.
Soon after, the driver returned, claiming that Saddam Hussein had been found “across the street” (not literally, but nearby). Winthers was driven to that location, though there were many other soldiers gathered, and he was unable to see Saddam. Winthers was then brought to a large mess hall, where the rumors were confirmed. “We didn’t believe it,” he said. “We still needed proof.”
Later, Winthers spoke with one of the soldiers who personally captured the dictator. The man told him he found a suitcase with $750,000 dollars on Saddam, which he handed over to his superiors. Winthers felt this was the wrong choice; the officers surely pocketed the money for themselves, so the soldier should have kept it. “Everybody is out for themselves,” Winthers said. “If you get something, you take it.” He almost acquired an AK-47 during Desert Storm, but it was confiscated by an officer (who himself probably selfishly took it home, Winthers opined).
As in Vietnam, militants were difficult to distinguish, and Winthers often did not know who to trust. However, he still had positive interactions with the Iraqis, and enjoyed showing a picture of excited schoolchildren he visited. Winthers particularly wished to visit the village he helped in 1991. Although he returned to the nearby compound at Doha, he was unable to get permission to visit the settlement that bore his name. Winthers also attempted to call the villagers, but had no luck, as he did not know Arabic. There were, nevertheless, some traces of his former ventures. He met an Air Force officer who had passed the village and seen his sign still up, and some locals still referred to him as “King Bob.”
An unexpected injury interrupted Winthers’s deployment. After returning from a mission to Mosul, he awoke from a nap with his eyes burning. The local medics could not tell the cause, so they sent him to Kuwait. From Kuwait, Winthers was sent to Germany, and then to Walter Reed hospital in Washington DC, where he finally received treatment. The doctors realized that he had suffered a chemical burn. (The Iraqi Army had buried chemical agents in the sand, which had been picked up by sandstorms that Winthers happened to be in.) He underwent several surgeries, but unfortunately these were unsuccessful; Winthers was left with permanent blindness in his right eye.
All this time, Winthers had few belongings and just one pair of clothes with him, as he had been told to leave his things in the Middle East since he should return promptly. At Walter Reed, however, he was prohibited from going back due to his injury. Winthers received so much medicine that he could not think straight: “I was floating around that place half of the time.”
One day in the hospital, Winthers noticed two men walking by. One man shook his hand and thanked him for his service in Iraq, though he did not introduce himself to Winthers. In contrast, the other frustratingly asked him why he did not salute. That man was the hospital’s General (who Winthers found unfriendly), but he could not tell, as he was so clouded by the medicine he was on. That evening, Winthers saw the first man on television news. In his confused state, he also failed to realize who that man was – an important senator – until now!
The Army next moved Winthers to Alpha Company, the medical unit at Fort Dix, to both be productive and see more medical professionals. Unfortunately, he was treated “like garbage” there. His superiors assigned him to their office work while they were “up in their room[s] sleeping.” The doctors did, however, reaffirm that Winthers would not return to Iraq. A few weeks later, he relocated to Charlie Company, where he was contrarily told to head to the Middle East. Confused, Winthers referenced the previous notices regarding his eye, but they told him, “If you didn’t lose your leg and your arm, you’re going back to Iraq.”
Winthers’s next deployment to Iraq was characterized by negative events. On his previous deployment, his first sergeant had made several comments suggesting hatefulness, death, or harm to members of the unit. An investigation began, and as Winthers personally witnessed some of the incidents, he implicated the sergeant. Thus, upon returning to Iraq, the first sergeant and his allies in the 253rd (including the company commander) viciously accused Winthers of lying and threatened court martial. Winthers’s military belongings also disappeared; his opponents accused him of negligence and threatened him, when in reality they probably stole his equipment to frame him. In another incident, the first sergeant accused Winthers of stealing phone calling cards from the Red Cross and distributing them to strangers. Winthers had received them from a friend, and gifted ten each to every member of his unit as a goodwill gesture.
The first sergeant punished Winthers with 12-hour guard-duty shifts, which he did not mind. He did, however, mind the way that he and his men were wrongfully treated. Winthers addressed his higher commanders about these issues, but to his chagrin, nobody paid notice. Thus, he left the 253rd when his deployment ended (seven months later).
The first sergeant and company commander did eventually lose some ranks over the incident, but otherwise got away with their harassment. “When we went to Vietnam, you work as a team,” Winthers said. “It didn’t work like that. They hated us from day one.” Many other men also left the 253rd, and he credited such attrition rates to this bad management. “I wouldn’t tell anybody to join the Guard no more,” Winthers said. “I’ve seen a lot of stinginess… when it’s supposed to be for the people. I’d tell them to go join the Air Force.”
Winthers also contended with his physical afflictions. His impaired eyesight made everyday coordination activities, such as driving, more difficult. In addition, he suffered from hearing loss, crooked toes, and a “messed-up” shoulder from heavy field work. Winthers outlined the difficulties of dealing with others who could not understand, or who even trivialized his situation, even medical and military professionals. For example, though initially considered 80% disabled, he was once unfairly judged to have “perfect eyesight” in order to reduce this factor to 30%. His frustration was clearly visible in both expression and words: “Why am I talking to these people?” Nevertheless, as with any obstacle Winthers faced, he did not let his disabilities control him; he “deal[t] with it” and remained positive.
Despite all these tribulations, Winthers’s Army stint and subsequent 40 years of service in the National Guard made a massive impact on his life. “They’re like a family to me,” he said, smiling and nearly tearing up. “I’m afraid to leave the Army now.” Winthers concluded the interview by introducing one of the many cherished people he met in the service, Veronica Miller. A long-time friend, she had worked alongside him at Sea Girt for over 23 years.
Winthers subsequently retired from the National Guard with the rank of Sergeant First Class and lives in Rumson, New Jersey.