Thomas Hamill is a dairy farmer and truck driver from Noxubee County, Mississippi. In 2004, after several years of around-the-clock work to keep his dairy farm afloat, Hamill learned that he could use his truck driving skills as a contractor in Iraq to make significant income and save his farm from foreclosure.
Hamill’s experience driving an 18-wheeler on rural Mississippi’s rough dirt roads made him a commodity among the hundreds of over-the-road truck drivers who were working as contractors for KBR. He quickly rose through the ranks to convoy commander. On April 9, 2004, the one-year anniversary of coalition troops taking Baghdad, Hamill had an ominous premonition. “I went to our morning TSTI (Total Safety Task Instruction) meeting, along with other convoy commanders, foremen and drivers, to cover the roster of who was going out that day,” he recalled. “Just as our meeting wrapped up, the KBR security advisor walked up to tell us the roads had been O.K.’d. I sensed that he was still worried about the way things seemed to be heating up.”
“One of our convoys was hit as it left one of the bases a few day earlier,” Hamill continued. “The militants set off a series of IEDs and fired shots from small arms as the trucks drove by. They were lucky…six or seven RPGs barely missed several trucks. The kill zone—the stretch of road where militants fired their weapons at our convoys—was only about 100 yards long. Suppressing fire from military escorts, and the fact that they got out of range so quickly, is probably what saved them.”
Two convoys were scheduled to haul fuel that day. Hamill’s drivers were assigned to drive camouflage military tankers that morning. The “push” comprised 17 tractors pulling loaded fuel trailers, and two spare tractors in case a truck broke down.
Security was provided by the Army Reserve 724th Transportation Company, led by Lieutenant Matt Brown from Bartonville, Illinois. Brown was in a Humvee, leading the convoy, and had positioned six of his men to ride shotgun in the trucks. After every third tanker, an armored 5-ton “gun truck,” armed with either a .50-caliber M2 or MK 19 GMG, fell into place. Drivers were to keep 100-meter spacing, which stretched the convoy over a mile in length. “I watched as some of the drivers failed to keep 100-meter spacing,” Hamill said. “Two of our new drivers were having a problem keeping the proper distance, which is a matter of survival. One of them kept falling too far behind. The trucks were spaced so that if an IED exploded and took a truck with it, the ignited fuel wouldn’t ignite the other trucks.”
Widow Maker and Sniper Alley
The convoy traveled westbound on a six-lane freeway, just north of Baghdad. Shacks and rundown buildings dominated areas along the highway. “With good reason, we nicknamed that stretch of road ‘Widow Maker,’” Hamill said. “Beyond Widow Maker, we called the next stretch of highway ‘Sniper Alley,’ because the past six months, our convoys had been attracting small-arms fire along the route. Where we merged onto MSR Sword, the military and KBR employees had named that road ‘IED Boulevard,’ which earned its notorious handle from the local entrepreneurs, who often stand along the road selling black-market gasoline from 1- and 5-gallon cans.
“The sight of abandoned gas cans sitting near the road wasn’t anything new, so we continued rolling, ironically enough, down IED Boulevard,” Hamill said. “I had seen empty gas cans along the highway the entire six months I’d been in Iraq. We couldn’t just turn around because a few gas cans sat on the side of the road.” Still concerned about the gas cans’ ominous presence, Hamill added, “I became more alert. Traffic was sparse—much less than I had seen on the 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 Hamill, radioed, “I’m having trouble. The truck is dying on me.”
“Tommy didn’t say anything on the radio about taking fire, but he was under attack,” Hamill said. “We had trucks break down all the time. Trucks just quit. That’s why we had two bobtails—trucks without trailers—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 truck in tow, or hook to the trailer as quickly as possible.
Hamill radioed Lt. Brown, the Army convoy commander, “I’ve got a truck that is breaking down and we need to get some gun support there with him.” Before Hamill could say anything else, he heard, “We’re taking fire in the rear,” the voice of bobtail driver Stephen Fisher. Fisher would die moments later.
“We need to get this man picked up,” Hamill radioed to Lt. Brown. “Get that gun truck to pick him up. Let’s leave the truck. Just get the men.”
Simultaneously, everybody radioed that they were taking fire. Hamill’s truck was slammed. As the barrage of bullets continued, Hamill’s driver, Nelson, knowing only speed would save them, put the pedal to the metal.
“We were under an assault like none other I had experienced, and I’m no stranger to gunfire,” Hamill recalled. “It sounded like the truck was getting pounded with a hail of golf balls.”
The convoy had entered a “kill zone” that was enormous by previous experience.
Usually, an ambush was a 100-yard gauntlet of small-arms fire, IEDs and RPGs—but this was different. This was a massive, well-planned assault. “We were all pedal-to-the-metal, mash-it-to-the-floor,” Hamill said. “That’s all we could do.”