The Fil-Am general’s mission

Posted at 05/09/2008 10:07 AM

By I. WILFREDO VER
Filipinas Magazine


Tasked with protecting Camp Anaconda from Iraqi insurgents, Brig. Gen. Oscar Hilman became the hero of Filipino contract workers there. 

When the Iraqi Islamic Army-Khaled bin al-Waleed Corps kidnapped a Filipino truck driver in July 2004 and threatened to behead him unless the Philippines withdrew its troops from among the US-led coalition forces in Iraq, President Gloria Arroyo promptly recalled the 51-man humanitarian contingent back to the Philippines. The pullout raised the possibility of a similar withdrawal of some 4,000 Filipino civilian contractors who no longer felt safe working in the US military bases in the region.

Brigadier General Oscar Hilman, then the US Army Commander of the Brigade Combat Team, was tasked to prevent such a withdrawal from Camp Anaconda, one of the largest US military bases in Iraq. In a series of town hall meetings, he spoke to the Filipino workers—often in Tagalog—and persuaded them to stay put by assuring them of their safety in camp. To show good faith, he gave the contractors base privileges, a move that was approved by the US chain of command.

The military knows only too well the critical role these noncombatants play in the overall mission of a military organization in the war zone. In this case, the Filipino contractors provided such basic services as base maintenance, transport, and janitorial, cleaning and food delivery. Hilman made it clear to his bosses that their departure would greatly impact the combat capability of his unit; not only will it encumber the soldiers with additional duties, it will also mean some combat personnel would have to be reassigned to do those tasks.

“We are going to treat [the contractors] with dignity and respect,” the general insisted. Thus, he was allowed to extend several privileges never before offered to civilian contractors of the bases, including commissary shopping privileges, medical treatment at the base hospital, access to the gym facilities and basketball courts, and use of base transportation.

His efforts were hailed with great fanfare by the Filipinos, who applauded their benefactor like a celebrity. Because of his Filipino heritage, the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) easily trusted Hilman and made him the honored guest at their social events. He also received some perks. “I’d get my haircuts for free from the Filipino barbers. That’s two haircuts a week.”

Hilman, is one of a triumvirate of Filipino American generals who have attained stature in the US Army. The other two are Lieutenant General Edward Soriano, the highest ranking among them with three stars and was formerly the Commanding General of the US Army Corps I, and Major General Antonio Taguba, the unflappable investigator of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. All three are now retired.

Career Trajectory

Born in Libmanan, Camarines Sur, Hilman grew up in Cebu City. While studying at the Philippine College of Criminology in Manila, his mother and his siblings left for the US After he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Criminology in 1968, he returned to Cebu but didn’t find any good job there and he missed his family, so he decided to follow them to the US

Having been interested in the military when he took up Preparatory Military Training and Reserved Officers Training Course at school in the Philippines, Hilman signed up with the US Selective Services shortly after he arrived. In June 1969, he was drafted into the US Army.

Toiling for nine years as a medic, finance and supply sergeant, his career picked up when a two-star general noticed him and made him apply for Officer Candidate School. Thereafter, he was commissioned as a lieutenant. Following his completion of specialty training in Armor Basic and Advanced courses, Hilman became a tank commander. His ambitions were modest. “When I made lieutenant, I just wanted to retire as a major, as I had been told to always aspire two grades up.”

But fate—and the military—had other plans. Hilman steadily climbed the ranks, through the company grade level, battalion level, and ultimately as commander of the Combat Support Battalion to the 803rd Armored Cavalry. When he took over as Director of Plans, Operations and Training for the Washington National Guards, Colonel Hilman was on his way to higher command. In January 2003, he was promoted to brigadier general when he assumed command of the 81st Brigade Combat Team.

Throughout his storied career, Hilman has consistently displayed such Filipino values as hard work, loyalty and humility. Of his success in the promotion ladder, he says, “I’d study hard and made sure that in every training, I would land in the top percent of my class. People notice you if you do the work.” Of his secret to getting plum assignments, “I was always loyal to my bosses who would then recommend me for higher command positions.” When it was pointed out that he is one of only six Fil-Ams who made general in the US Armed Forces, he quipped, “I think I’m the only American general who talks with a Filipino accent.”

The Iraq Challenge

In April 2004, his unit was deployed to the Iraqi theater of operations. Protecting Camp Anaconda was to be the greatest challenge of his military career. Located in the critical Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad, the camp includes the second busiest airport in the entire world, and houses 28,000 soldiers and 8,000 civilian contract workers.

Because of its size and strategic military importance, the camp was the target of 40 to 50 mortar attacks daily, thus it was nicknamed Mortaritaville. When a soldier asked the general during a unit meeting why they weren’t running after the bad guys, Hilman revealed that his two requests to the Pentagon for reinforcements had been denied. His statement was picked up by the American news media, and politicians in Washington, DC played it up as indicative of the indecisiveness of the Defense Department. Hilman got caught in the political maelstrom so, to avoid the incessant phone calls of senators and congressmen, he took a vacation.

He has since been credited for initiating Oplan Tacoma, where his men cleaned up the areas surrounding the camp of bad guys by going from town to town, aided by modern air technology.

The second time Hilman was caught in a controversy was when two of his soldiers were killed. Initially reported as ambushed by the enemy, it was eventually determined that the two were actually shot by Allied forces. As the media hounded him, Hilman was quick to create an investigative body and he made it a point to personally visit the families of the two soldiers killed.

Despite those controversial events and the great peril of being right in the center of the war zone, this true warrior found ultimate satisfaction from his stint in Iraq. When he left the war front in 2005, the mortar attacks on Camp Anaconda were significantly reduced by 60 percent and the mortar hits were far from the populated zones of the camp. His unit also suffered minimal losses: just nine soldiers out of the 4,500 officers and men under him. Hilman proudly says, “I felt I have really done my bit to serve my country.”

What is remarkable about his story, however, is that while serving his adopted country, Hilman’s career of service had actually come full circle with his roots when he took it upon himself to look after the welfare of his kababayans. By improving the living conditions of Filipinos in the military base in Balad, Iraq, he was, in effect, also serving his native land.

His work on behalf of the OFWs did not go unnoticed by the Philippine government. In October 2004, Hilman was offered, via diplomatic channels, the Philippine Humanitarian Award in Manila. Unfortunately, as brigade commander, leaving Iraq at that time was out of the question, thus, he couldn’t accept the honor.

His bigger reward, however, was more direct and perhaps more fulfilling. He was warmly embraced by the Filipino workers, who would even ask him for his autograph.

Knowing how Filipinos love to eat, Hilman organized a regular Saturday camp cookout during his stint in Camp Anaconda. This weekly event was so well attended that the Filipino contractors banded together and built their own dining facility in the camp. “It was still there when I left,” the general says. “In fact, they even threw a big farewell party for me. They cooked four kambings (goats).”

About the author

I. Wilfredo Ver is a former military officer who is now in the information technology field.