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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.”

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U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, approach an entry control point while aboard Stryker armored vehicles during a stop at Contingency Operating Base Adder. (U.S. Army photo by Pvt. DeAngelo Wells/Released)

Under Attack and Wounded
Lt. Brown radioed that a truck was on fire ahead, so several trucks veered off the highway through a hole the security detail had created in the guardrail, onto the frontage road. Most of the trucks followed, but another convoy would follow in half an hour, so Hamill reached behind his seat for his Qualcomm satellite computer. “I had just started typing ‘convoy under attack’ when a bullet slammed through the passenger door and struck my right forearm, knocking the computer out of my hands,” Hamill said. “There was no pain, though, only a strong jolt. A huge chunk of my arm had been blown away. Blood gushed from my arm all over the computer.”

“I needed to find a way to stop the bleeding,” he said. Hamill grabbed a pair of clean socks from his bug-out bag. “I wrapped a sock around my arm and handed the radio to Nelson and shouted for him to run communications until I could get the bleeding stopped. The sock wasn’t long enough to tie off so I 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.

“Our truck was breaking down, and other trucks were passing us. I couldn’t 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 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 couldn’t see the shooters. They were hidden in the grass and behind the 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 and nearly turned over.”

Hamill’s driver yelled, “We’ve been hit by something—something big!”

Hamill shouted back, “We gotta keep going!”

“We were still moving forward, bullets hammering the truck,” Hamill said. “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 diesel. The trucks slid through like hogs on ice.”

Other trucks sped past Hamill’s rig. Another driver lost control a half-mile ahead. “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 driver didn’t have a chance; it was over in a flash.”

Hamill’s truck limped along as more trucks passed. “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,” he recalled. “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 5 or 10 miles per hour. When we reached the ramp, we began fishtailing and spinning out of control. I shouted to Nelson that we couldn’t block the ramp. 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 on the crossover bridge. Another truck that had made the same turn, apparently 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.”

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Motorized Massacre And Capture
“The truck that had just passed us was maybe 100 yards away in front of us, moving fast, and getting farther away when it exploded, erupting into flames. By then we were hardly moving at all. 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!’”

Hamill’s driver yelled that air pressure was dropping, locking up the rig’s brakes. “We were dragging our trailer like an anchor, but the slick road allowed the trailer to skid along,” Hamill recalled. “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 corners. I didn’t see a soul, just all those guns stuck out and firing. I felt at any minute that Goodrich was going to get killed. 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 M16. He was sweeping his gun back and forth and firing, not really picking his targets. He realized he needed to move, so 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 crept along, and were coming up on one of the trucks that exploded, and it was still blazing.”

Hamill’s driver yelled, “We can’t go past that truck, we’ll catch on fire, too!”
“Fuel spewed from both sides of their truck,” Hamill said. “We had no more choices.

We had to bail. Right then, a Humvee pulled around in front of us 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 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. I hollered, but knew there was no way I was going to catch up. They never checked up. They just drove away.”

In the next two minutes, the Humvee would sustain heavy fire as it escaped toward BIAP. Specialist Goodrich would be shot again and killed. Hamill would be swarmed by an AK-toting mob, butt-stroked across the head, and led away.
It began a 23-day captivity.

Editor’s note: Six weeks after his harrowing escape, Thomas Hamill was interviewed extensively by Paul Brown and Jay Langston for their New York Times bestseller, Escape in Iraq: The Thomas Hamill Story. Signed copies are available for $25 ppd, from: Book Mark Publishing, POB 5066, Brandon, MS 39047. For more
information, please call 800-323-3398.

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