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Rocket’s red glare over Baghdad

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

The unit crest of the U.S. Army’s 937th Engineer Group.

The most memorable moment in my life occurred in Baghdad, Iraq on July 4, 2003. The road that got me to that particular July 4th was not one that I had expected to walk down.

I grew up in an Army family. At age 18, I left my father’s home and headed to West Point. I was commissioned in the Army in 1979 and embarked upon a wonderful career filled with family adventures, tremendous camaraderie, and the feeling that in a small way our family had given back to America for all that She has given us.

I loved the Army but in late 2002, I found myself as a 46-year-old brigade commander with the 937th Engineer Group at Fort Riley, Kansas, never having known a life other than the Army. We had talked as a family for several years about possibly retiring and in October of that year I told my Commanding General that I intended to retire the following summer.

My vision of the final months of my 24 year journey through the Army was filled with notions of farewell parties, golf outings and a leisurely and relaxed transition into the world of civilian life. But God always has a sense of humor and in early January 2003, our brigade received deployment orders to Kuwait in preparation for possible combat operations in Iraq.

My leisurely stroll into civilian life had just turned into a sprint into the Middle East.

In late March 2003, fifteen minutes into the ground war, my command group crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq as part of the 3rd Infantry Division’s historic attack toward Baghdad. By early May, we had located our headquarters on the southwest side of Baghdad. The grind of the “war after the ground war” was underway and the first signs of what would become the Iraqi insurgency started to appear.

As we approached July 4, my Command Sergeant Major (Roland Holland) suggested that we try to do something special for the troops. He then proceeded to orchestrate one of the best 4th of July picnics I have ever partaken of — in peace or war. To this day I don’t know where he got the steaks, burgers, ice cream and everything else we had that day. Every trooper was rotated off the line of duty that day so that he or she could have 4 or 5 hours away from the war and enjoy in a small way what their friends and family back in States were enjoying.

At about 11 that evening, Command Sergeant Major Holland rousted me from my sleep, told me to get dressed, and put on my flak jacket and Kevlar helmet. A mile or so from us, a huge ammunition dump being used to stockpile captured Iraqi munitions exploded and set off a chain reaction of further explosions which lit the desert night sky in a manner reminiscent of Francis Scott Key’s “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”

That night is indelibly etched into my memory because of all it represents – soldiers far from home, selfless service, courage, shared hardships and much more.

On Friday, we will celebrate the 238th anniversary of our independence and freedom and I will again remember that night and those soldiers. Words cannot express how thankful I am that on July 4, 2003, I was not at a farewell party at Fort Riley, or enjoying a round of golf, or enjoying a leisurely transition into civilian life. Instead, I was far from home, in harm’s way, and with the finest people in the world – American soldiers. On this 4th of July amidst all the fun we will have as Americans, I hope we will take a moment to say a prayer of thanks for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families for the incredible sacrifices they have made, are making, and will make in the years ahead. God bless them and God bless America on this 238th anniversary of our freedom and independence.

Col. (Ret) Marc Hildenbrand Senior Advisor

In addition to commanding the 937th Engineer Group, Marc served as Executive Officer to the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington, DC.


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