Trucker kidnapped in Iraq tells his story to Symposium attendees

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Thomas Hamill, a Mississippi trucker and dairy farmer, went to Iraq to haul freight for the war effort and make the kind of money not available to many drivers in the United States. Instead, Hamill got an adventure he never expected.

Shot and kidnapped April 9, 2004, by insurgents who attacked his convoy, Hamill spent 24 days in captivity.

Back in the States, the deaths of six truckers in the same ambush became a national story. So did the missing trucker, as videos of his captivity were aired around the world. Meanwhile, he struggled to stay alive and waited for an opportunity to escape.

Hamill told more than 400 attendees at Randall Publishing’s Spring Trucking Symposium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., May 25 that prayer sustained him during his ordeal and that he had God to thank for his escape. “I never did get discouraged,” Hamill said.

At the symposium, he also signed copies of his book Escape in Iraq: The Thomas Hamill Story, accompanied by his co-writer, journalist Paul T. Brown.

In 2003, after the U.S. invasion, Hamill signed up for a job in Iraq with KBR, a subsidiary of defense contractor Halliburton. Two and a half years of tough times on his dairy farm were taking their toll. With a wife and two teenagers to support, Hamill was attracted to KBR by the large tax-free salaries the company was offering to truckers in Iraq. “We had low farm prices in 2001, 2002 and part of 2003,” he said. “I saw the writing on the wall. Small dairy farms were falling along the wayside just like small trucking companies were with high fuel prices.”

KBR flew the veteran truck driver, who had 26 years and 3 million miles of experience, to Kuwait in fall 2003. He drove the rough-and-tumble highways of Iraq until February 2004, when he returned to the United States to be with his wife, who was undergoing emergency surgery to repair an aortic aneurism. Despite the dangerous heart surgery, Hamill felt an urge to return. “I came up working the hard way,” Hamill said. “I signed up to work for a year over there. I had an obligation. I told my wife, ‘You know I have to go back to Iraq. I have a commitment.'”

By April, Hamill was back, and the insurgency in Iraq was heating up. Now a convoy leader, Hamill prepared his drivers for a trip hauling fuel to Baghdad. While convoys had suffered losses to improvised explosive devices, rocket attacks and small arms fire, there was nothing to prepare the civilian truckers for the barrage they were driving into April 9.

“Most days we’d go out and things were fine,” he said. “Some days just like driving over here – you had to stay out of the way of crazy Iraqi drivers. Some days an IED (improvised explosive device) would go off. You might take small arms fire.”

Attacks usually happened in “kill zones” as long as 300 yards, Hamill said. Convoys typically sped up to get out of the area of attack while U.S. soldiers in Humvees quelled the attackers. But on a highway in western Baghdad near Abu Ghraib, the country’s infamous prison, the kill zone wasn’t that small. In fact, Hamill said it was miles long.

When the convoy began taking fire, fuel began leaking from tankers. Tractor-trailers exploded, jackknifed and overturned. When Hamill’s rig finally died, his co-driver and a soldier who was providing cover fire from his running board managed to make it to a military vehicle. But Hamill didn’t get to the Humvee in time, and it sped away. Bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound in one arm, Hamill sought shelter from the bullets.

He was quickly spotted and turned over to the insurgents. He was taken to a field hospital for insurgents and given an IV drip. After six or seven days, he was taken to a surgeon who treated the wound. For the next few weeks, captivity was a series of missed opportunities. Early on, Hamill tried in vain to signal U.S. helicopters with a water pan he’d shined. His best opportunity to escape came when he discovered he could pry off the metal door at one of his hideouts. He escaped into the desert with a bottle of water and tried unsuccessfully to flag a passing U.S. convoy.

“I knew this was going to be a long shot,” he said. “The convoy went right on by me. They thought I was just an Iraqi farmer waving at them.” He was also ignored by two Chinook helicopters that came right overhead. “I was looking at nothing but desert. I had 8 ounces of water in a bottle. My heart told me to get back in the cell.” Feeling he had no choice, he returned to his place of captivity and replaced the door. “They came that night and moved me.”

A few days later, Hamill was certain the end was near. Though he was back in the desert near the building from which he had earlier escaped, one of his captors was circling him and pointing a gun at him. ” I knew we were way out. I thought, ‘He’s going to shoot me.'”

But his captors were just repairing his cell. “They had just brought somebody to fix the holes.” They closed him back in with water and food. The next morning, May 2, he woke to the sound of diesel engines. He thought he could push open the door again but worried about a guard being outside. The chance was too good, though.

“Today is the day,” he told himself. “I was going to take a leap of faith. I stepped through the door and started across that field.” Hamill was able to flag down soldiers in a passing column – a column that wouldn’t have been there had insurgents not damaged a nearby pipeline. “If I’d slept another 15 minutes, they would never have known I was there.”

Hamill was flown to Germany for a medical exam and debriefing and was reunited with his family a few days later. Hamill said the support and prayers he received from family and friends in his little hometown of Macon, Miss., sustained him during his time and helped free him.

He told fleet owners at the Symposium, “If you have drivers working over there or thinking about working over there, give them your blessing. I hope you’ll open your arms and give them a job back when they come home. It’s a tough time over there for those drivers.”

Drivers in the States don’t know how good they have it, said Hamill, who is thankful for the federal regulations that keep roads safe. “Drivers have a lot to be thankful for today.”