‘There was an eerie silence’
By ASHLEY ROWLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 12, 2014
When Capt. Dave Hibner pulled into Baghdad International Airport in early April 2003, his unit virtually out of ammunition, he saw his brother waiting for him, limping but otherwise unharmed.
Hibner had just completed the second wave of the U.S. invasion of Baghdad. Days earlier, his identical twin, Capt. Daniel Hibner, had helped secure a crucial bridge into the city, helping to pave the way for the first U.S. push through Baghdad.
Both would later be awarded Silver Stars for their efforts — Dave for overseeing a covert mine breach of a critical stretch of road, and Daniel for leading a mission to secure an explosives-laden bridge over the Euphrates River.
The reunion was a welcome relief from combat.
“I kind of knew what he had been through,” Daniel said of Dave. “I could tell from the traffic I was getting that it was a real fight for them to get through that southwestern portion of Baghdad, and of course not everybody made it.”
The Hibners grew up in Michigan City, Ind., the middle siblings in a family of six children, and joined the Army to pay for college. Both worked in construction, which led them to become engineers.
By the time the Iraq war kicked off, the 30-year-olds were company commanders. The twins led engineering operations during the takeover, at one point in charge of clearing minefields on separate sides of Baghdad at nearly the same time.
“We didn’t realize until weeks later that we were both breaching minefields on the same day during the same attack,” Dave said. “It kind of felt good in a way that we were helping each other even though we didn’t realize it.”
In early April, U.S. forces were moving toward Baghdad. As commander of Alpha Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade, Daniel was in charge of Operation Peach — securing a four-lane bridge into Baghdad that would allow infantry forces to cross into the city. Based on experiences with other bridges, he assumed its columns would be stuffed with explosives that the Iraqis would try to detonate before the Americans arrived — or when they were crossing.
“Essentially our mission was to save that bridge,” he said.
When Hibner and his unit arrived at the river, they could see foxholes dotting the opposite shoreline but no Iraqi soldiers. They also saw a detonation cord dangling from the bottom of the bridge.
“There was an eerie silence,” he said. “Nothing around it was happening.”
The plan was for 15 soldiers to cross the river by boat and neutralize any explosives on the bridge. About 28 more soldiers would then secure the top of the bridge and prepare the roadway for armored infantry forces to cross.
As soon as Daniel gave the order to launch, the first boat came under enemy fire from a two-story building on the far side of the bridge. He said the next 10-20 minutes were the scariest of the entire operation as he watched from the shore as the boat drifted downstream. The eight soldiers inside were unable to steer the watercraft as they returned fire.
“I thought I might lose an entire squad,” he said. “They were easy pickings.”
The second and third boats entered the water and came under fire. By this time, Bradleys — called for when the first boat came under attack — had arrived and opened fire, destroying the building where the enemy fire was coming from. Daniel crossed the river in the final boat, cutting the detonation cord as they crossed.
All three boats made it safely across, though the first, likely hit by gunfire, sank almost as soon as it landed.
As the unit regrouped, they came under heavy fire from every direction, some of it likely aimed at explosives still in the bridge columns. Hibner’s men worked to hold their position long enough for another platoon to secure the bridge and mark its two useable lanes so the armored infantry could cross.
“You could sense that things were going to get bad,” he said. “There were hundreds of Iraqis on the other side and I had about 15 soldiers trying to hold this bridgehead.”
As soon as the first tank crossed, the enemy fire stopped.
“It was the most beautiful sound in the world when those tanks and Bradleys were rumbling and just coming across the bridge,” he said.
The crossing was successful, and Daniel’s force held the area through the next day, allowing other forces to continue the attack toward Baghdad. He was part of a follow-on operation that took over the Baghdad International Airport.
While clearing part of the airport, Daniel was hit in the knee with shrapnel but dismissed the injury as insignificant. He would later undergo surgery in the U.S.
He knew Dave, who he had last seen in Kuwait several weeks earlier, was involved in the invasion, but didn’t know exactly where or how.
“I was never concerned for myself, ever,” he said. “But in the back of my mind, I was always cognizant that he was in danger at certain times.”
Removing the mines
Dave was with the 2nd Brigade south of Baghdad. On April 6, his unit was informed that it would be part of a second attack on the city, pushing through from the south. Late that night, commanders learned that there was a large minefield, about 550 meters deep, on the only route the brigade could take into the city.
The brigade considered ideas for clearing it, including air attacks to blow the minefields out of the way.
The decision was left up to Dave, who said he decided on a covert breach despite the risk of detection.
“It’s kind of a crazy idea,” he said. “It’s hard to sneak around when you’re in tanks and Bradleys.”
Even though it was after midnight, he spent hours driving to each element that would be involved, giving operations orders before their 3 a.m. departure. Soon after leaving, the soldiers had to bulldoze through a huge tank berm that the brigade had erected as a barrier against the Iraqis, using precious time.
They crept forward through enemy territory, driving slowly to maintain as much flexibility as they could. They reached the edge of the minefield shortly before 4 a.m. and began clearing the mines by roping the explosives one by one and pulling them from the minefield.
“We knew we were running out of time fast,” he said. He ordered his men to clear the rest of the field by picking up the mines by hand. The four soldiers stayed about 75 meters from each other so, in case of detonation, only one person would die.
Making the decision to have his men remove the mines by hand was the hardest part of the mission, Dave said.
“I cared for my soldiers very much, and they’re all incredibly brave soldiers and I didn’t want to lose any one of them,” he said. Even though he didn’t believe that the mines were armed with anti-handling devices, “there’s still a risk there. It only takes one — those mines are extremely lethal and explosive.”
It was just before 5 a.m., and the sun was coming up, making their position visible. One of the sappers had picked up the last mine and was running away when the Iraqis saw the Americans and began what would be a short-lived attack.
“As soon as they ceased fire, I could literally hear and feel through the ground shaking the rest of the armored brigade coming up behind us to conduct the attack on Baghdad,” he said. “Literally, it went right down to the last minute before they came.”
The task force, with the rest of the brigade, proceeded into Baghdad. Dave was part of a group that occupied a building on the outskirts of the city zoo, coming under fire so heavy that day and the following night that a critically wounded soldier couldn’t be evacuated by air. Dave was injured when he tried to pull a TV cameraman out of a doorway; both were blown against the other side of the room when a mortar landed in front of the door.
Dave sustained shrapnel in his left leg that, because it was embedded so deeply, is still there today.
What neither brother knew was that while Dave was clearing the minefield south of Baghdad, Daniel was clearing a much larger one on Highway 8 in the western approach to the city. After the 1st Brigade captured the airport, Daniel was part of a mission to secure the lines of communication between the airport and an area in Baghdad that would later be known as the Green Zone — essentially closing the gap between the 1st and 2nd brigades.
As they moved forward, they discovered a minefield 1,200 meters deep that covered the road and stretched onto the median and shoulders of the highway. Daniel chose to conduct an in-stride breach, an approach used when encountering an unanticipated enemy obstacle.
A mine-clearing line charge didn’t get rid of the mines, but a D9 Armored Dozer did.
“We ended up basically snowplowing this minefield to clear it,” Daniel said. Three mines were hit during the process, but nobody was injured. The soldiers cleared both sides of the highway and blew up the mines, laden with 2,500 to 3,000 pounds of explosives, causing a mushroom-cloud explosion that shook the ground and blew out the windows of nearby buildings.
“That was the first time I saw any Iraqis in Baghdad,” he said. “They came out to see what the heck had happened.”
Daniel’s more obvious approach of breaching a minefield may have helped his brother.
“We were trying to get into the city center and be as undetected as we could, and the 1st Brigade, because they were doing such a big deliberate breach with all the commotion, created a really great diversion from the 2nd Brigade,” Dave said. “In a way, I think it kind of had the Iraqis looking to the Baghdad International Airport for the main attack to come in, when it was actually coming in from the south.”
'We owe a lot to our units'
Both of the Hibners are now lieutenant colonels, married with large families — Daniel has three children and Dave has four — and stationed in the U.S. Daniel is commander of the 4th Engineer Battalion at Fort Carson in Colorado, while Dave is commander of the 249th Engineer Battalion at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
Both said they were surprised and humbled to get the medal.
“When I found out I was getting the Silver Star, it was really hard for me to appreciate it at the time because I wasn’t thinking about awards through any of this stuff,” Daniel said. Dave said their soldiers deserve much of the credit for the success of their missions.
“We both feel like we owe a lot to our units for the awards, if not everything.”