A dictator’s final friend: KC military officer describes smoking cigars with Saddam Hussein

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — It’s been nearly 15 years since Saddam Hussein was executed for crimes against humanity. While most of the world remembers him as a tyrant, one Kansas City military police officer was one of the deposed dictator’s final friends. 

Kelly Hillyer spoke to veterans who gathered at American Legion Post 370 in Overland Park for the F.I.S.H Speakers Series on Thursday evening.

He told them he was in ROTC at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and working at Applebee’s when he read an article about the first military police officers guarding Saddam Hussein shortly after his capture.

Little did he know he’d end up smoking cigars almost nightly with Saddam Hussein. 

Shortly after deploying with the 414th Military Police Company out of Joplin in 2005, 2nd Lt. Kelly Hillyer agreed to go to Baghdad and found out he’d be guarding Saddam Hussein at his family’s bombed out palace.

And not just protecting him, but also befriending him as Hussein prepared for trial. 

“If you wanted to see where his head was at for court, he insisted you sat down with him and smoke cigars with him, and I didn’t smoke cigars,” Hillyer said.

Soon, Hillyer was smoking Hussein’s finest Cohiba Churchills he kept in Gatorade bottles, speaking through an interpreter and escorting him to court to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Problem for Hussein, he had to travel by Blackhawk helicopter. 

“He hated to fly, so he would grab my cargo pocket or sometimes he’d grab by hand and hold my hand,” Hillyer said. 

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Hillyer said they talked about family, and Hussein shared advice on women. After his conviction, Hillyer told Hussein it was time for him to go back home to Kansas City. 

“He was upset about it and kind of started tearing up about it, and he said I understand you have to be with your mother,” Hillyer recalled of his final conversation with Hussein. 

Hilyer wasn’t there when Hussein was executed in December 2006 and said he’s glad he wasn’t.

“At no point did I think he was not an evil person and capable of evil, but he did have another side to him and you saw that when we smoked cigars,” he said. 

Hilyer said he he still has trouble reconciling some of his feelings, knowing the atrocities Hussein committed. He said he agreed to speak about his experience to a crowd for only the second time to share the story of how soldiers treated even the worst prisoners when no one was looking. 

“That’s how I approached the mission to treat him with dignity and respect at all times,” he said. 

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