COMBAT OUTPOST RAWAH, Iraq -- The ‘4th of July’ celebrations in Iraq may not compare to the picturesque backdrop of America’s capital, but the patriotism and loyalty of the Marines, sailors, and soldiers present at Highlander Day would have been hard to find anywhere else.
On July 4, 2007, nearly half the world away from hearth and home, Task Force Highlander, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 2, celebrated the 231st birthday of America’s freedom. First LAR invited the Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army soldiers, as well as the other sister services, to join in the day’s events.
“Highlander Day helps us celebrate something the Marine Corps way,” said Sgt. Jerome C. Ward, the battalion’s radio supervisor. “It’s our way of coming together and showing our camaraderie and sense of family for the celebrations of July 4th.”
The celebration was named for the battalion, the Highlanders, and is a standing tradition within the unit. The last time the battalion held a Highlander Day was in California, just before their deployment to Iraq.
“This helps morale,” said Sgt. Daniel T. Gibbons, the battalion’s data chief. “A lot of Marines are hurting inside, from homesickness and such, and this gives them a break from the fast pace and helps take their mind off of their everyday routine.”
Cpl. K. R. Smith, a scout with the battalion, agreed, “It’s a good way to relax during a stressful time. I remember last deployment, we couldn’t keep track of holidays. We didn’t even remember Christmas until we heard about it on the radio.”
The day started with a message from the battalion sergeant major followed by the commanding officer announcing the opening of the day’s events. The battalion had several guardian angels, Marines placed in over watch positions, throughout the area for security.
The celebration was split into two parts, one during the day, and the other near the evening. The morning and afternoon centered on sports and combat-training skill events: a strong-arm carry, volleyball tournament, soccer tournament, casualty evacuation station (cas-evac), light armored vehicle (LAV) tire change, grenade toss, marksmanship, and a Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) grappling competition.
“Competition helps bring the battalion together. When we are all working as a group, it builds that bond and increases battle-readiness,” said Gibbons, a Denver native, serving on his second deployment to Iraq.
The Marines, sailors and soldiers said they loved the mixture of sports and training events.
“This is a great way to train a significant part of the battalion in one day,” said Smith, a Kansas City, Kan., native. “The unknown distance shoot has historically been a weakness for Marines, and we did really great at that. Exceptionally well. Every crewman needs reset training on tire changing. We all learned a few things during that event. Not to mention the cas-evac drill. You can never have enough practice at that, and you can never be so good you don’t have to practice it.”
“The training aspect of the day was inspiring,” said Sgt. Alejandro J. Miller, a light armored vehicle commander from Thane, Wyo., whose team won the tire changing event. “I don’t know whose idea this was, but they not only made sure everyone had fun, they also managed to make sure we all learned something and got in some good combat training.”
Miller went on to say that competitions like Highlander Day inspire young Marines, and help ease the pressure of a first deployment.
“Competition builds confidence and morale,” said Sgt. Jerome C. Ward, a green belt MCMAP instructor who helped supervise the grappling event. “For instance, a little guy who grapples a huge guy and wins, even by accident, is going to inspire everyone. The same is true for the strong man carry or the unknown distance shoot. It improves performance and gives everyone that extra confidence they need to stay vigilant and keep on with the mission.”
Ward, a Queens, N.Y., native, went on to say it was an added bonus that the events mirrored combat situations and requirements.
“You never know when you might have to change a tire quickly because you are under fire, carry heavy ammunition to an auxiliary gun post, help a wounded brother, or engage in hand-to-hand combat. We walk side-by-side with Iraqis everyday in town and you never know what may happen,” he said.
The Marines invited everyone to their celebration and competitions. The U.S. Army participated in several events and nearly won the volleyball competition. The U.S. Navy had participants in most of the events as well; they made it to the final round in soccer, and took home the trophy in the grappling event. The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police were strong contenders for the soccer and volleyball competitions, both of which the Iraqi Army won. The big winner for the day was Company C, also known as the Warpigs, who took home three first-place trophies, and had competitors in the final round of most of the events.
“This was an excellent way to integrate all the military services and even the Iraqi Security Forces,” said Army Spc. Brandon M. Girardi, a wheel mechanic with the 596th Maintenance Company. “I love the Marines, they take good care of us out here, and I have seen several different units come and go. Despite inter-service rivalries, we can get along together and have fun without any animosity. It’s great that even though our home is on the other side of the world, we can spend time with our brothers and sisters in arms and bring a little piece of America here to the desert. Like they say, ‘You can take a soldier from his country, but you can never take a country from its soldier.”
Following the competitions, the service members were treated to a traditional American 4th of July dinner including hamburgers, hot dogs, baked beans, barbecued ribs, and barbecued chicken.
The evening celebration was capped with a combined arms reset training involving LAVs, tanks, artillery, and the explosive ordinance disposal team (EOD). The sky was lit with illumination rounds casting shadows as the tanks and LAVs conducted night fire missions on a target range. The display culminated with a massive sky-splitting fireball from the battalion’s EOD.
“The tanks and artillery display was awesome, it reached inside and touched me. I had chills. It was a representation of the strength of the task force, the strength of the Corps, and the strength of America. It showed everyone what firepower we have access to and what we can do at the drop of a hat to protect ourselves and the citizens of Iraq. The entire day was a brief example of what we are capable of as a whole,” Ward said.
“It kind of takes you back to the day you graduated boot camp,” Smith said. “Hearing the beat of the drums in your chest, like your heart, marching out in front of your family; the day you pledged to yourself and every other American who ever lived, or ever will live, that you would willingly sacrifice your life for freedom and the pursuit of happiness. The day you stepped out from under the flag, and took your place in front of it.”