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Jon M. Hilliard

U.S. Army / Silver Star

Seriously wounded by enemy fire, he stayed in charge and coordinated his unit's escape

The feeling of weightlessness was a surprise.

Blown out of the hatch of his Stryker vehicle and into the air, Staff Sgt. Jon Hilliard landed heavily on top of his vehicle, his head twisted in the camouflage netting. Flames licked upward from the back of the armored vehicle, and smoke poured from the troop compartment below.

“We were in column formation and moving down an alleyway between neighborhoods in Baqubah, Iraq, when we ran over a deep-buried IED,” Hilliard remembered of the March 24, 2007, explosion. “The EOD (explosive ordnance detachment) guys in front had detected it, but it went off about 10 feet behind us, only seconds after we received the radio message.”

The IED, or improvised explosive device, had been buried in the sewer system, a favorite location for the enemy.

Feeling an intense pain in his leg, the weapons squad leader quickly checked for blood or shrapnel. Finding none, he called down into the compartment: “Hey! Is everybody OK?”

Inside, the radio operator yelled back: “Some of the guys are hurt. We need to get them out of here!” Hilliard immediately ordered a casualty evacuation.

Caught in an alleyway, the now-immobile Stryker soon resounded with the unmistakable “ping” of enemy fire. Hilliard had to draw the attention of the insurgents.

“We were exposed like sitting ducks,” he lamented.

His M203 grenade launcher was gone, and the M240B machine gun mounted in the hatch had been blown into the sniper netting. Using his knife to cut the machine gun free, he grabbed the closest box of ammunition and loaded what he had. He needed to draw fire away from the wounded being evacuated from the vehicle.

Though the M240B is designed to be mounted, Hilliard had no choice but to pick up the machine gun and fire it “Rambo-style” at enemy positions north and south of the alleyway. For two long minutes, he provided the only covering fire.

He ran out of ammo, but the platoon behind him set up a triangular defense position after realizing the Stryker had been hit.

“My only thought at the time was, ‘Please don’t let my men die,’ ” Hilliard recalled.

Hilliard had done his job: The wounded had been successfully evacuated, and his withering fire had silenced one of the enemy positions. He handed down the machine gun to one of his men and got off the vehicle, but he wasn’t finished yet.

He hobbled over to the grenade launcher, now on the ground, picked it up and used it to help wipe out the last enemy machine-gun position.

When Hilliard learned that another platoon now had his unit’s machine gun, he threw his assault pack on his shoulder and limped across the alleyway to retrieve it. Halfway there, a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the ground in front of him, throwing dirt into his eyes, but Hilliard charged through the doorway of the building to relative safety.

On his way back to his platoon with its weapon, Hilliard finally fell over from his injury. He refused to be carried out on a stretcher and was helped slowly to a medical evacuation vehicle, repeatedly asking about his men.

Hilliard suffered serious contusions all along a leg and to an ankle. He took a month to recover.

He would later learn that seven of his men had been injured. Two lost a leg, and another had severe internal injuries.

Their staff sergeant, though, had helped save their lives.

Wesley Millett is a freelance writer and author of the military nonfiction book, “The Rebel and the Rose,” about the final days of the Confederate government.

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Sgt. Jon Hilliard receives his Silver Star during a ceremony at Fort Lewis, Wash., in January 2008. (Photo by Eric Steen)

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Jon M. Hilliard

U.S. Army / Silver Star

Nickname: Jay

Born May 5, 1981, in Chehalis, Wash. Raised in Winlock and Toledo, Wash. He is married and now lives in Winlock.

Joined the Army on March 15, 2000. The ambush resulting in his Silver Star occurred during his second deployment in Iraq, from June 26, 2006, to Sept. 12, 2007. He was assigned to Company B, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. He was the weapons squad leader for Company B. His first Iraq deployment was from November 2003 to November 2004.

Although wounded when blown from the hatch of his Stryker vehicle, he provided covering fire to allow his men to be evacuated. Seven were injured, but no one was killed.

Now serves in the War Transition Unit at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

“I always wanted to be a soldier, since I was a kid.”

Iraq / Ba'qubah

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