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Thomas Hamill On His Iraq Escape

Last spring, American truck driver Thomas Hamill's convoy was attacked by insurgents in Iraq, and he was taken hostage.

On April 9, 2004, Hamill was the convoy commander on a run to deliver fuel to American troops at Baghdad International Airport. Thirty minutes into their trip, the convoy was attacked.

Five truck drivers and two soldiers were killed in the attack. Four more men were missing, including Hamill. The next day, Hamill appeared in a video broadcast on the on Al Jazeera television network.

For 24 days, his family - and all of America - held its breath waiting for news.

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Hamill escaped, and now has a book out about his experience: "Escape in Iraq-The Thomas Hamill Story."

He spoke with The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith about his ordeal.

"I knew one thing that I'd learned since I'd been there - that you can't show fear in front of these people," Hamill told Smith. "You have to show them that you've got a backbone."

That determination, and Hamill's unwavering faith, helped him survive.

"I said I want to go home Lord. I've got a wife and a family at home. They're going to be devastated if I die here, but I'm ready for whatever decision is made. It's your will."

Nightly vigils by the people in his hometown in Mississippi helped Hamill's wife and family stay strong.

Though moved often, Hamill was treated fairly well by most of his captors. He was given food, taken to a doctor for a serious arm wound suffered in the attack when he was taken hostage, and given antibiotics. But when the world began to see the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, everything changed.

"That night they came in and shackled my hands," says Hamill, "And they shackled my legs with a dog chain."

But after 24 days in captivity, Hamill escaped, running to the safety of a New York National Guard unit on patrol a half mile away from where he was held.

"And I'm hollering. 'I-- I'm-- I'm an American. I'm an American.' And then I started hollering, 'I'm an American POW.' And at that point, they were all just standing and stopped looking at me. Nobody had any guns pointed at me. And I knew that - at that point, I knew it was over. I knew I was free."

Hamill's wife Kellie says the first thing she did when she got the call that her husband was safe was to thank the Lord. "I mean you couldn't have made me any happier. And I still felt for the families that don't know anything."

Still missing after the attack on Hamill's convoy are U.S. Army Spc. Keith M. Maupin, 20, of Batavia, Ohio, and truckers William Bradley of Chesterfield, N.H., and Timothy Bell of Mobile, Ala.

Hamill's been home in Macon, Miss., since May. His arm needs more surgery, but he's confident it will heal completely. He enjoys time with his children, Tori and Thomas, his wife, and getting back to farming.

While Iraq is thousands of miles away, it's never far from his mind. Hostage taking is common now, often with heartbreaking results.

"I'm angry at - we're over there to help those people. And there's a group of people over there that don't - they'll do anything. And terrorists, that's what they're called, terrorists, to terrorize people."

Hamill says he would like to go back. "I enjoyed what I was doing, supporting my country, supporting my troops."

His wife says, "I wouldn't be happy you know, but I love him enough to let him go.

Does Hamill consider himself a hero?

"I'm not a hero. These young boys that are over there that are sacrificing their lives and a lot of them aren't going to be coming out of there (they're heroes)."


Here is an excerpt from
Escape In Iraq: the Thomas Hamill Story:

CHAPTER 2

Friday, April 9, 2004
10:30 a.m.
Iraq

"We're Taking Fire"

The sight of abandoned gas cans sitting near the road wasn't anything new, so we continued rolling, ironically enough, down IED Boulevard. I had seen empty cans along the highway the entire six months I'd been in Iraq. You couldn't just turn around because a few gas cans sat on the side of the road. Still concerned about their ominous presence, I became more alert. Traffic was sparse, much less than I had seen on that road on earlier trips.

By 10:30, or so, the entire convoy was on the freeway. Right away the traffic started disappearing and when cars began swerving off the highway to get out of the way, I realized something was about to happen. We were trapped. There was no way we could turn around; the guardrail in the median prevented a U-turn.

Tommy Zimmerman, driving one of the trucks behind me, radioed, "I'm having trouble. The truck is dying on me, it's quitting." Although Tommy didn't say anything on the radio about taking fire, he was under attack. We had trucks break down all the time, trucks just quit. That's why we had two bobtails — trucks without a trailer — in the rear. The first gun-truck that got to a disabled truck pulled security by stationing a soldier on either side to watch for danger while another stood at the ready manning the big gun in the truck. A bobtail would then pull up to take the whole truck in tow or hook to the trailer as quickly as possible.

I radioed 1st Lt. Matt Brown of Bartonville, Illinois, the Army convoy commander, "I've got a truck that is breaking down. We need to get some gun support there with him."

"We're taking fire in the rear!" radioed one of our bobtails, either Steven Fisher or Jackie Lester.

"We need to get this man picked up," I radioed back to the lieutenant. "Get the gun-truck to pick him up. Let's leave the truck, just get the men."

All at once everybody was on their radio reporting they were all taking fire. Instantly, our truck was slammed with the first rounds. But as the barrage of bullets continued, Nelson knew that speed would be the only thing to save us, and he smashed the accelerator to the floor.

We were under an assault like none other I had experienced. I'm no stranger to gunfire. Growing up in the country, it was normal to target practice out behind the barn, or in the backyard, for that matter, but the world is much different when the bullets are coming at you. It sounded like the truck was getting pounded with a hail of golf balls.

Never had the kill zone been so lengthy. Usually an ambush spanned only 100 yards or so in length, this one was endless. We had taken some small-arms fire before, maybe an RPG or an IED every now and then, but this was different. This was a massive, well-planned assault.

We were all pedal-to-the-metal, mash-it-to-the-floor. That's all we could do.

Lt. Brown radioed, "There's a truck on fire up ahead, we've gotta get off this road."

We veered off the freeway, through a hole our military had created in the guardrail, and onto the frontage road. Most of our trucks followed, but another convoy would follow us in 30 to 40 minutes. I needed to alert them before they traveled too far. I grabbed my Qualcomm on-board satellite computer from between the seats and held it in my lap. I had just started typing "convoy under attack" when a bullet slammed through the passenger-side door and struck my right forearm, knocking the computer out of my hands. There was no pain, though, only a strong jolt. A huge chunk of my arm had been blown away. Blood gushed from my arm and ran all over the computer.

I needed to find a way to stop the bleeding. I grabbed a pair of clean socks that had fallen out of my bug-out bag. I wrapped a sock around my arm and handed the radio to Nelson. "You are going to have to run communications until I can get the bleeding stopped," I shouted. The sock wasn't long enough to tie off so I just kept twisting it, hoping the pressure would slow the bleeding.

The gunfire was so loud. We were right next to the buildings from where the shooters were firing their weapons. Nelson screamed into the radio, but I couldn't understand a word he was saying over the noise from the mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades. We were being riddled with bullets, but we kept going.

For a truck having trouble, the standard operating procedure called for the driver to go as far as he could until the gun-truck could pick him up. Each truck driver was taught to stay calm and drive through the kill zone, get to a safe place, and assess personnel and equipment damage. At the very least our drivers were trained never to stop. The gun-trucks were there to take care of the disabled crews and pick them up. Everyone who was able had to keep running.

But our truck began breaking down, and other trucks were passing us. I could not see who was in the trucks and did not know which trucks had been disabled behind us. The trucks were completely out of order.

We crept along the frontage road maybe a mile from the exit that leads to BIAP. I noticed in the mirror that some of our trucks near the rear were still on the freeway and moving past us. Some trucks had passed us on the frontage road as well. They were doing what they were supposed to do. It was each driver's call; if the smoke cleared to where you could see, you drove through it as fast as you could. The trucks on the freeway were farther away from the small-arms fire, but since we were on the frontage road we were at point-blank range.

I could not see the shooters. They were hidden in the grass and behind buildings. Some fired from behind parked cars protected by a screen of women and children. Mortar rounds exploded in front of us; a black cloud of smoke followed each blast. A rocket-propelled grenade slammed into our truck. Our vehicle shook violently and nearly turned over.

Nelson yelled, "We've been hit by something — something big!"

I shouted back, "We gotta keep going!"

We were still moving forward, bullets hammering the truck. I just knew that at any moment our rig was going to explode and at any second we were going to die. We continued on, trucks still on the freeway were passing us; bullet holes riddled the huge tanks, literally unloading the fuel on the road. The trucks looked like water-sprinkler systems wetting down the pavement, which was slick with the oily diesel fuel. The trucks slid through like hogs on ice.

Other trucks continued speeding past, going as fast as their governed engines would allow. One of the drivers, however, lost control on the slippery road about a half-mile ahead of us. He fishtailed a little bit, flipped upside down, and his truck and trailer slid down into the median. An instant later the rig exploded. The whole truck blew up right there in front of us. The unfortunate driver didn't have a chance; it was over in a flash.

We limped along slower and slower while trucks continued going by. We were almost to the exit when I saw another truck at the ramp on its right side just off the frontage road in a ditch. I assumed the driver got off the ramp too fast, lost it, and rolled over. The whole top of the cab was mashed down.

We were barely moving, just crawling, maybe five to ten miles per hour. As we approached the truck I did not see any movement at all. Of course, we wanted to stop and help, but we had to continue. The gun-trucks would come along to care for them. Had we stopped, we would have blocked the entire road and stopped everybody behind us, who would then be sitting ducks for the gunmen.

When we reached the ramp, we began fishtailing and spinning out of control. "Nelson, we can't block this ramp," I shouted. "Try to get over to the guardrail as far as you can. If we spin out by the guardrail maybe another truck can still get by."

We managed to make it to the top of the ramp. Another truck swerved off the freeway onto our ramp, cut in front of us, and made a left-hand turn onto the crossover bridge. Another truck that had made the same turn looked to have been hit by a rocket, rolled over, and came to rest against the guardrail of the bridge. We slowly started across the bridge, over the freeway passing the disabled truck; there was no sign of life.

The truck that had just passed us was maybe 100 yards in front of us, moving fast, and getting farther away when it exploded, erupting into flames. Perhaps it ran into an anti-tank mine (who knows what happened), but the whole truck just blew up. Flames shot more than 200 feet into the air.

By then we were hardly moving at all, and the gunfire had not stopped. Out of nowhere Army Specialist Gregory Goodrich ran and jumped up next to me on the running board of our truck, wrapped his left arm around the mirror and yelled, "We have got to drop this trailer."

"We are losing air pressure, must've happened when that big explosion hit us, must've knocked out our brakes," Nelson yelled.

We were dragging our trailer like an anchor, but the slick roads allowed the trailer to skid along. As much gunfire as we were taking, there was no way Nelson or I could get out of the truck. Whoever got out would have been shot to death. We pushed ahead. I looked over Specialist Goodrich's shoulder toward the buildings; all I could see were AK-47s sticking out around the corners. I didn't see a soul, just all those guns stuck out and firing, I felt at any minute the brave soldier would be cut down.

He was just standing up on the running board and had absolutely no protection. He was shot in the arm but kept firing away and trying to hold on. A couple of times he grabbed another clip, bumped it, and slammed it in his M-16. He was sweeping his gun back and forth and firing, not really picking his targets. He realized he needed a better rest, a better support for his rifle. He swung around and climbed onto the hood of the truck to fire from a prone position. Using it as a rest, he continued firing at anything that moved. We steadily crept along, barely moving at all. We were coming up on one of the trucks that had exploded, and it was still blazing.

"We can't go by that truck," Nelson yelled. We'll catch fire, too."

He was right; fuel was spewing from both sides of our tank. We couldn't stop there, though. And, we were right in the middle of a gunfight.

"This truck's fixin' to die," Nelson yelled again. "It's fixin' to quit!"

We had no more choices. We had to bale. Right then a Humvee pulled around in front of us at about 100 feet and stopped. Then Specialist Goodrich rolled off the hood of our truck and fell to the ground, picked himself up, and ran for the Humvee. Nelson was running right behind him. Nelson dove through the right door right behind the soldier. I ran as hard as I could toward the back of the Humvee and was within 10 steps when the driver gunned the engine and sped away. Loaded down with a heavy flak vest, a 4-pound helmet, and wounded, there was no way I was going to catch up. I hollered but knew they'd never hear me. They never checked up. They just drove away.

There was no question that I was in a bad situation standing there in the road. Bullets were still flying from all directions. I flashed back to what my Vietnam-veteran roommate in Kuwait told me, "If you are ever under fire, you get down on the ground as quick as you can and stay down." I did exactly that, maintaining a low profile and searching for an escape route. The buildings were close and I thought that maybe I was near the outer edge of the kill zone. I thought, Maybe I can make it to one of those houses without getting shot. But then I saw a bunch of people running toward me. I got down low and tried pulling myself in the direction of one of the houses, but my right arm was useless. I could not pull myself forward with it at all.

So, I tried rolling, but it was not easy, either. I managed to roll about halfway to the buildings when I noticed a couple of teenage boys between two of the structures. They were pointing across the road, hollering and screaming something in Arabic. I had stopped rolling and watched the boys to see what they were doing. I could still hear gunfire.

Looking back at the road to see what held the boys' attention, I could see an Iraqi man wearing a dark tan robe, crouched down, and aiming an AK-47 right at me. He poked his weapon at me like he wanted me to do something. I didn't understand. He made the pushing motion again, over and over. Both of my hands were above my head, as I got ready to roll again. I held them higher to show him I did not have a weapon. Then I realized I still held my satellite phone in my left hand. He thought it was a gun, so I dropped it to the ground.

He approached me slowly as the two boys raced toward me. They got to me before the gunman and immediately began stripping me of my helmet, flak vest, and wristwatch. They took my wallet from the right hip pocket of my jeans, my ID badge from the left, and change from the front-right pocket.

I did not know if the man was going to shoot me or not. Six to eight more people were coming from across the road. They gathered around, pulled me up, and began walking me up a short slope. As soon as we reached the top I saw a crowd of 20 or more people coming toward me from an alley. They charged straight at me. One of the young men in the crowd was holding a rifle high above his head with the butt end pointing down. I knew what that meant; I was about to get it across the head. I turned my face away, but he struck me diagonally across my right temple and ear. The blow hurt, but did not knock me out. The crowd was frantic, shouting, and yelling in Arabic.

I did not know what their plans were for me, but I was well aware of the mutilations of the four security officers in Fallujah. They were acting like I was a big prize or trophy. They were either going to show me off or kill me like they did the guys in Fallujah. Were they going to burn my body, hang me, and video it for television? All of these questions flashed through my mind. But I was not afraid. It would have done no good at that point to get hysterical. There was nothing I could do; I had no control of the situation.

In next to no time, a small, light gray car raced up, and four guys jumped out and started screaming in Arabic at the crowd. They pulled me around and shoved me into the backseat of the car. Two of them got in the front seat and one on either side of me. They backed out and headed in the same direction the convoy was going, but they went one block over, made a left turn, and headed east on a dirt road in the opposite direction the convoy was headed.

The passenger in the front seat held his weapon out the window and hollered, "Amreeky! Amreeky! Amreeky!" I assumed he meant, "We have an American." People were walking on both sides of the road just looking at us as he kept hollering, "Amreeky! Amreeky! Amreeky!" We soon turned left and crossed the freeway very close to the rear of my convoy. Some of our trucks were turned over and on fire. Plumes of oil soot floated across the sky as far as I could see.

The brutality of the attack hit me; I knew a lot of men in my convoy died. Some of the men had been in Iraq only a month, two months at the most. Jackie Lester was the only man in the convoy who had been there longer than me. I was so saddened by the carnage and livid at the same time. I didn't know it yet, but five of my drivers were killed, and two are still missing. Steven Hulett of Manistee, Michigan; Jeffery Parker of Lake Charles, Louisiana; Jack Montague of Pittsburg, Illinois; Tony Johnson from Riverside, California and Steven Fisher of York, Nebraska were killed. Timothy Bell from Mobile, Alabama, and William Bradley of Galveston, Texas, are still unaccounted for.

The 724th Army Transportation Company sustained heavy losses as well. Months later I learned that Specialist Gregory Goodrich, the soldier who defended my truck, was shot and killed a few minutes after he dove into the Humvee that rescued my driver. Sergeant Elmer C. Krause of Greensboro, North Carolina, died during the attack. Private First Class Keith "Matt" Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, is still listed as missing in action and feared dead.

My captors turned onto the same frontage road I had ridden on a few minutes before. The driver pushed the little car to its limits. We must have been going around 80 miles per hour; he was driving frantically. I was afraid he was going to wreck the car.

I lowered my head to look through the windshield and saw an Apache helicopter hovering high above us. I figured the Apache would see that little car driving erratically past the burning trucks, think it had something to do with the attack, and decide to take us out. I leaned forward, pointed upward between the driver and passenger, and said, "That helicopter is going to shoot us. You come down through here this fast and they are going to shoot us." The driver must have understood because he quickly wheeled into the carport of a small house. We rushed inside, startling the occupants.

They sat me down, removed my boots and bloody shirt, and, for the first time, examined my injury. One of the men brought in a strip of cotton cloth and wrapped my arm. I grabbed my boots and struggled to put them back on. I tried to get one of my feet down into the boot without using my hands, but I kept losing my balance and stumbling around. The front-seat passenger, whom I would come to know later as Tiger, slipped his sandals off and told me to put them on. He took my boots and claimed them for his own. Another one of my captors threw me a long-sleeved black shirt. Gently easing a sleeve over my right arm, I slowly worked the shirt over and around the rest of my upper body.

I was ordered back to the car where they covered my head with a hood or head wrap in an attempt to blindfold me. The cloth almost covered my eyes, but I could still see. We took off again, heading west on the frontage road past all the burning trucks. In the distance I saw several men standing around a Chevrolet Suburban parked in the road. As we got closer I could see that one of the men was wearing a blue flak vest, just like mine. I hoped they might be able to help me. As we approached I noticed the words "TV Crew" in white letters on the back of the jacket. I knew then they would be of no help. I became very angry; the closer we got the madder I became. The fact that they were filming all of that destruction really enraged me.

We pulled around them and stopped. The TV crew hurried over. The man sitting to my left got out of the car, leaving the door open. Because one of the men in the crew looked Arabic, I assumed the TV crew was with a network such as al-Arabia or al-Jazeera. I refused to look at them. I was irate that they were there. They may have been there in good faith, but I didn't think they needed to be filming the devastation of my convoy. I wondered if the crew knew in advance the attack was going to happen. It was very suspicious that they just happened along.

I learned later that they were reporters for the Australian Broadcasting Company who had spotted the cloud of smoke from our burning tank trucks and had raced to the scene of the ambush. My captors had spotted them and stopped to show off their prize.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the camera stuck in the door opening, with the reporter standing behind the cameraman. The masked gunman to my right snatched the white hood off my head and shoved my cheek to force me to look at the camera.

"What happened?" the reporter asked.

"They attacked our convoy," I growled. "That's all I'm going to say." I turned and lowered my head. I was consumed with a white-hot rage for the news crew. I felt they were taking advantage of the situation. They were capitalizing on my misery and that of everyone in my convoy. I did not want to talk to them at all.

"Do you want to give us your name?" the reporter asked.

"Huh?" as I turned to face them again.

"Do you want to give us your name?" the reporter repeated.

"Hamill. Thomas."

I looked forward as a gunman jumped in beside me and slammed the door as they sped off.

I realized then that there was nothing I could physically do. I couldn't control my destiny. I said a silent prayer:

God, you are going to have to intervene in this situation. There's nothing I am going to be able to do. I have no control. You're going to have to take care of everything from this point on until I am rescued or released. I have to lay all of this at your feet, at the cross, because there is nothing I can do to change my outcome with these people.

Though I was angry, I was not afraid. I was not about to show fear to those people. They thrive on fear.

As we turned north and headed away from BIAP, I looked over my right shoulder at the charred mass of wreckage that defined my convoy. The road eventually wound through a rural area, and people were walking on both sides of the highway. All of them were carrying weapons, and it was the middle of the day. Some of them had satchels on their backs with four or five RPGs sticking out. What's going on? I wondered. Why are we not blowing the dickens out of this place? I am sure somebody's seeing all these people out here. And here we are driving right into the middle of them.

We passed a sandbagged bunker lined with armed men hunkered down in a grassy ditch. They must have been some of the ones firing on our convoy. The driver sped recklessly at 75 to 80 miles per hour. The car rocked back and forth as he rounded curves without slowing down. I was sure we were all going to die in a car wreck.

We came to a small village with some stores and small buildings along the road. We made a right turn and followed a six-foot-tall block wall on our left for several hundred feet. As the wall ended we came upon a big open area, and three or four cars were leaving. We veered away from them as if my captors didn't want them to see me.

Houses surrounded the square. As we pulled into a driveway, about a dozen Iraqi men were standing outside. They stared at me as we walked inside. We passed through the foyer, turned left through another door, and walked through two large rooms. We settled in a room in the far corner of the building. They laid me down on a pad stretched across the floor. About 20 Iraqi men stood around me, staring, talking to each other, and muttering words in Arabic that I did not understand.

The captors led another man into the room, and he carried a large yellow plastic bag that appeared to be full of medical supplies. He walked over to me and pulled out an IV line and drip bag. I guessed he was a field doctor of sorts. He unwrapped the makeshift bandage from my arm, and for the first time I saw just how bad the injury was. A large sheet of skin and muscle, about the size of my hand, had been sheered off and just hung down, attached only by a two-inch strip of skin. It was a bloody mess. The field doctor positioned it back, rewrapped it, and started the IV in my left arm, on the inside of the elbow.

The crowd of men scrutinized me the entire time the doctor worked. I did not say a word; I just looked back at them blank-faced. Standing across the room was a tall, thin, one-armed man about six feet, four inches tall. My eyes were locked on him as he wove his way through the crowd and stopped in front of me. I saw that his right arm was missing above his elbow. He stood over me for a while looking at me; I just looked back. He swiftly raised his left arm, clinched his fist, and shouted, "By the hand of Mohammad, I will hang you from the bridge in Fallujah tomorrow! By my hand I will hang you from the bridge in Fallujah tomorrow!"

I just looked him straight in the eye and said nothing. He turned and walked away.

The crowd of men left later that afternoon. Directly, my four escorts lifted me up and ushered me out to the car. We hit the road again. I held my drip bag as we drove a short distance to a small building that was about 10 feet wide and 20 feet long. The first thing I noticed as we entered the room was an iron bed with a rope hanging near its edge. They laid me down on the bed, took my drip bag and tied it to the bedstead with the rope.

FEEEWWW... FEEEWWW… Two rockets, aimed toward BIAP, blasted off with a roar from just outside the building where I was being held. Earlier, our convoy had taken rounds from this place. I couldn't believe they were firing rockets from the yard of that building, and there I was laying in one of their launch sites. Our forces could have easily destroyed that building.

I could only lie there; there was no other choice. I knew that the images of me sitting in the back of that car would be shown on every network television station in America. My kids were going to see it and be afraid for me. I could just see them sitting there watching and not knowing what the future held. I thought about my wife, her health, and how she was going to handle the news.

Then there was the uncertainty of what had happened to the men in my convoy. I was sure that there had been loss of life. Who? I wondered, How is the media going to frame this? Would the coverage make this seem even worse to my family? I wanted to think of my family, but I could not permit my thoughts to be only of them. If I worried about them constantly I might panic and do something foolish that would cause my captors to kill me. I asked God to take away the worry, and he did.

The loss of blood sapped my strength. I became very sleepy and eventually I dozed off for maybe three or four hours. When I awoke it was dark. I lay there until the men came in to get me for another car ride.

Copyright Thomas Hamill and Paul T. Brown. Escape in Iraq: The Thomas Hamill Story. Jay Langston ed. Accokeek, Maryland: Stoeger Publishing Company, 2004

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