Having three “green suiters” onboard with the Wilmington District is rare. But Major Robert Hilliard is working in Project Management in an area that’s been missing a Soldier for the past few years. He’s well-suited to work for the District. He has a Civil Engineering degree from Auburn, a Masters Degree in Engineering Management from the University of Missouri at Rolla, and another Masters Degree in Civil Engineering with a water resources focus from Montana State University. He’s also a combat veteran Soldier who took part in the invasion of Iraq as Company Commander of Charlie Company, 70th Engineer Battalion, Third Brigade of the First Armored Division. Looking back at that experience just three and half short years ago he has a clear picture of what it took to adjust from a peacekeeping/humanitarian aid mission to becoming a tactical force.
“My first engineering mission was to send my Soldiers out to try to find the guy who ran the local water office in Abu Ghraib,” the Georgia native said. “There was an electricity plant that had no workers. We always asked ‘Where are all the folks who run these places?’ We had the authority to give cash to workers to get them to go back to work.”
Hilliard said things became complicated when insurgents began their onslaught. He witnessed numerous deaths among fellow Soldiers, some of them close friends. Since the insurgency wasn’t expected to be so forceful and elusive, Army commanders were forced to shift their thought process to adapt to life-threatening situations.
“There is a playbook for movement to contact, but a lot of it has to be improvised. You don’t know where the enemy is, but you’re moving forward. Eventually we were able to set up enough observation points and patrols to where we pushed the insurgents out of the city. We just couldn’t pinpoint their locations. Soon they were pushed out into the countryside where we could counter fire.”
Although there was a continuous battle against insurgents Iraq still had to be rebuilt. Hilliard said one of the keys to success for working with the Iraqis was to gain their trust and allow them to begin thinking again for themselves.
“I ended up taking over an area in Iraq that was all Shiite, about 300,000 people. These were very oppressed people and their city was in bad shape. We eventually created a city council. The Iraqi leaders told us that Saddam Hussein’s government controlled everything. The Army and the city council members worked together to get the city the basics it needed like fixing the sewer system and getting fuel for cars to go to work. I think the basic way we dealt with a municipality like that was treating people with respect. These were very smart people. I had people with PhDs, masters degrees or had years of experience. An Army commander couldn’t just say that he knew what was best for the Iraqi people and expect results.”
What Hilliard experienced in Iraq is something that he’s bringing to the Wilmington District, albeit in a radically different position. He said engineer Soldiers who are doing tours in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are bringing adaptation skills they were forced to learn in combat and Nation-building skills that apply to everyday Corps business.
”You can’t just say ‘We’re the Corps of Engineers. We know what to do.’ You really have to foster a sense of community. You have to work with the community. If I apply anything that I learned in Iraq to the Corps is that you have to constantly be in contact with the community and work with the leaders because they’re representative of their constituents. And as the Corps gets more leaders who’ve been to Iraq or Afghanistan where they’ve had to think out of the box I think that’s a nice complement, especially with the Project Delivery Teams and regionalization. Now we’re getting leaders who’ve been in an adaptive environment. And to bring those together is very beneficial because they’ve got the experience to lead change.”
Having experienced war and seeing numerous Soldiers killed in Iraq Hilliard said he had a “moment of clarity” recently when he went to his alma mater to watch a traditional performance at a football game.
“There’s a raptor center at Auburn and a bald eagle flies around the stadium of 87, 000 people. I thought in that minute and half, ‘You know, this is why our Army goes out and fights the fights so that 87,000 people can come together in this one stadium and not have to worry and not be in fear.’ People from different backgrounds just having a good time. And I thought of all the people I knew who died. Our quality of life is so much better than other parts of the world. We just need to realize that.”