Friday, April 29, 2005

Escape in Iraq. Thomas Hamill’s war & peace


Who could forget the unsettling image on television April 10, 2004 of a wounded American civilian sitting next to an armed black-masked insurgent in an Iraqi enemy vehicle? He wasn't turtled up with a protective Kevlar helmet and flak jacket. It was a nightmarish image that begged the question - Why did he put himself in harms way?

Just recently I had the incredible opportunity to spend a day with this man who was unexpectedly thrust into the international limelight. If in 2003 a list had been made of the people most unlikely to be held hostage by Iraqi terrorists, Tommy Hamill would have been a good candidate.

Tommy was a dairy farmer and truck driver at home while the conflict raged in Iraq the fall of that year. He is the kind of man that helps his neighbors. Macon, Mississippi has a population of 2,410. "I live in a town where you can put $20. on the table with no fear of theft," Tommy proudly told me. The residents of this piney backwoods town in Noxubee County pitch in to help each other get by in their world. Tommy, A volunteer fire fighter, was an integral and much-loved part of the community.

As a farmer, his typical routine consisted of ten hour days on the 135 acre family farm, as well as the other 100 acres he leased to grow additional hay for his cows.

Times were difficult. Tommy's wife Kellie faced expensive heart operation. Kellie's emergency surgery did not take place until Tommy was in Iraq. He had to turn home for her surgery. When milk prices dropped, Tommy told me he took a second job driving a truck to make the bank note.

Tommy's friend told him about an opportunity to earn $15/hour, tax free, driving truck. All expenses would be paid including medical, room and board. Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton, offered a one year contract. Guaranteed supplementary income for one year was music to this farmer's ears.

There was a catch. He'd be driving supply trucks in the war zone of Iraq.

Ultimately, Tommy desired to do what was best for his family. He and Kellie decided that accepting such a lucrative job offer was the best option. Also involved in the decision to work in Iraq was the fact that Tommy is a patriot. In fact, as a young man he had planned to become a Marine until it was determined he could not join the Corps due to a health issue. Supporting military efforts in Iraq would be an unexpected way to fulfill his high school dream. Additionally, Tommy decided this was an opportunity to help his own family and as well as other families in Iraq.

Tommy Hamill witnessed history being made in Iraq.

From October 2003 to April 2004 he witnessed first hand the positive signs of regime change in Iraq that benefited so many people. "I saw more kids walking to school as the days went by," Tommy remembered. There were other improvements. "When I arrived I saw no satellite dishes, but the dishes popped up on all the roofs," Tommy continued, "TV is a stepping stone to seeing what's going on in the rest of the world. We're free in the United States. You can demonstrate if you disagree with the government. You can make a living here (in the U.S.). In Iraq it's once a peasant always a peasant."

Tommy said the insurgents had an opinion on which U.S. presidential candidate would be best for their hope to keep a totalitarian government in Iraq. "I had conversations with Iraqi insurgents," Tommy said, "They said, Kerry good. Bush bad." Tommy believes that the January 2005 free election in Iraq would not have happened if Sen. Kerry won the presidency. "They'd be afraid to go out and vote if Bush lost."

Though Tommy endured many long days and difficult circumstances in Iraq, he took pride in his service to his country, his family, and the people of Iraq. An able driver and respected leader, Tommy received the promotion to convoy commander after serving six months in Iraq. As a Christian, he knew that God led him to that specific place for his benefit and to help the people around him.

Good Friday, April 9, 2004, was met with fear of anti-Christian actions. It was the anniversary of Iraq's first liberation birthday. The region expected militant attacks.

Tommy reported to the 6 AM security briefing for convoy commanders at Camp Anaconda, to ascertain if the routes were still open. "All roads were red," said Tommy, "but later they turned to amber, and we waited for the Army Reserve 724th Transportation Company security unit to join us." The convoy was on its way to Baghdad with the .50-caliber machine guns and Mark-19 grenade launcher equipped trucks riding shotgun.

The abandoned gas cans which Tommy sighted along the side of the road warned ominously of what was to come. Unknown to the drivers, the convoy was about to enter an eight mile long kill zone on the Abu Ghraib Expressway. Tommy's world was about to change forever.

"I heard rifles and the roar of rockets," Tommy recalled. "We were in the middle of a well planned and executed attack." Tommy was riding on the passenger side of his fuel truck. Bullets piercing the cab of Tommy's truck tore shards of metal from the door and thrust them into his right forearm. "I looked down to see sheets muscle tissue hanging from my right arm," Tommy said, "I kept my mind on my job. I worried about my men."

Six of Tommy's drivers died that Good Friday, and one is still missing. Left standing in the middle of a frontage road, he was grabbed by his attackers and whisked away. Tommy clung to his faith for strength to accept his fate without fear. "I felt God wanted me to live," Tommy stated, "He had a plan for me. I didn't show any fear to the crowd who were shouting and hitting me."

The masked captors blindfolded Tommy and moved him repeatedly over the next 24 days between empty huts and family houses. The conditions ranged from dark rat infested huts with clay floors, to primitive rural homes. "I must have been in the homes of my captors because I met the wives and children," recounted Tommy, "They eventually fed me what the family ate. Stewed tomatoes, rice, cucumbers, leaven bread, and a tea called shaay.

Tom and his captors began to bond. "I tried to earn their respect. I sensed it the first week." Tom observed that the insurgents thrive on instilling fear and terror. "I wouldn't let them see that in me."

The guards watched CNN and told Tommy that his family cried for him. But as the days of captivity increased, coverage of the massacre diminished. Tommy's captors scoffed United States culture as the weeks went by. "America forgot you," said the Iraqi guard, "Only Michael Jackson." The Iraqi hit his head indicating disbelief, "Nothing but Michael. Nothing but Michael."

The Iraqis did not know how Tommy measured on the scale often used by our materialistic society to evaluate people: his educational background, his job success, the size of his car, or the amount in his bank account. However through their short association together, Tommy's actions proved to them that he was a good man and worthy of respect. Though their verbal communication was limited, they showed him unexpected kindnesses during their twenty four days together. His captors continued to treat Tommy considerately.

As the days of captivity rolled by, the relationship between captor and prisoner grew. Tommy named his three guards Larry, Curly, and Moe. "We discussed religion," said Tommy. "Every day they asked if I were Muslim or Christian. I said I was a Christian." These insurgents seemed to accept Tom's religiosity, even though they didn't pray the same way. Tommy respected Islam, and he suspected the insurgents respected his Christianity. These Muslims sensed his character and showed him kindnesses.

Unfortunately, the Guards on Death Row, as Tommy named them, did not treat him so kindly. They shackled his hands and legs at night and threatened to kill him.

When Tommy's shattered arm become severely infected by the end of his first week in captivity, his captors arranged for medical care." I was blessed that an Iraqi doctor arrived to fix my arm," explained Tommy. "I had local anesthesia, and I focused on the children in the room during the operation." Tommy felt a particular bond with the young son of one of his captors. The 12 or 13 year old boy watched the operation with worry on his face. Tommy commented, "I hope I changed the kids to think we're good and not bad."

The contrast of incarceration experiences between Tommy and the imprisoned insurgents in Abu Ghraib prison are striking. Not only from the standpoint of treatment, but by the outcome. His captors reciprocated the regard which Tommy first demonstrated towards them. It is important to remember the humanity of our enemies. Especially in the midst of impassioned conflict, the ability to demonstrate respect towards people we oppose will often provide a better outcome than ever thought possible. It certainly did for Tommy.

This quiet man of deep and abiding faith was determined to be a good role model. He wanted his captors and their families to see that an American man can be trusted and not feared. Tommy witnessed Saddam Hussein's style of fear and intimidation. "Saddam built palaces and buried weapons to keep the people afraid of him," Tommy said, "The Iraqis want to be free but are afraid to fight for their own country."

According to Tommy, prayer was the key to his survival. Just as God led him out of other crises, he felt God was guiding the time he spent with his captors. "I grew up tough like my father and grandfather," alleged Tommy. "Fathers teach sons how to farm. Nothing more. I've been through many traumatic experiences. I endured this ordeal because I learned a lot from my past experiences." Tommy's unrelenting faith allowed him to interact with the terrorists with an optimistic attitude. He retained hope for their future and his own.

His high-profile capture and subsequent escape has changed Tommy's life forever. Since returning from Iraq Tommy has been interviewed multiple times and offered many opportunities to speak publicly. In addition to all of this, Tommy has also managed to find time to co-author a book with Paul T. Brown, Escape in Iraq: The Thomas Hamill Story is the inspirational story of an unlikley hero of the Iraq war.

Despite all the publicity he remains a man of genuine compassion and he continues to reach out to the people with whom he comes into contact. "After telling my story, a woman asked if I would speak to her teenage son who had just experienced a trauma. I told him to be strong and he would learn from this so he could handle anything bad that comes his way in the future," Tommy recounted.

Commitment and responsibility are core values for Thomas Hamill. "I want to go back to Iraq and finish my one year contract. I said I'd give them a year," Tommy stated, I'm committed to supporting our troops and the President."

He reached in his wallet and proudly pulled out his KBR identification card. He flashed it to me with pride. Tommy is the kind of loyal employee all employers want. With his right arm not fully healed, he has contributed to the effort in other ways. Last week he spoke to 300 new KBR recruits in Houston.

During his captivity, Tommy's captors repeatedly asked him, "Why is America here, why do you come to Iraq?" His answer remained the same, "We are here to liberate your country, to bring freedom to the Iraqi people."

"The issue of weapons of mass destruction polarized everyone here," Tommy observed, "If people would pray for peace, they'd know what we have to do."

Polarization is a Lead Our Leaders survival issue that resonates with Tommy. "We're all Americans separated by two parties," he said. He shook his head when he told me about a sighting in New York City last month," Christo paid $20 million to hang miles of orange fabric. It won't feed anyone."

California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vocalized the thoughts of many when he commented on Tommy's escape in Iraq, "Thomas Hamill maintained his presence of mind under terrible circumstances and kept his life because of it. His courage under fire is truly an example to all of us."

Tommy was not the only Hamill whose courage and faith would be tested. The Hamill family in Macon faced multiple challenges as they struggled to cope with Tommy's captivity. Holding up as evidence to his community's support, Tommy said, "My town came together to support me and my family. They were black and white; rich and poor. "Maconites brought food, cut his lawn, and painted the Hamill house. And they all prayed.

People close to Tommy Hamill on both sides of the ocean were praying for him.

"After a while they prayed to Allah for my fate," told Tommy. He related a poignant story of an old Iraqi woman visiting one of the houses where he was imprisoned. "She said she was praying that Allah would tell the men not to kill him."

Prayers on both sides of the ocean were answered. Allah and God felt Thomas Hamill's life was worth saving. On May 2, Tom looked out an opening in his cell-room and saw a U.S. convoy about a half mile away. "I saw my guard's rifle on the ground, but did not hear him," remembered Tommy. "I didn't hesitate. I thought if God had a plan for my life, he would protect me. I ran as fast as I could through the tomato field. I had no shoes, but I didn't feel pain or fear."

The Arabic word for "God willing" is Inshallah. Why was the guard inexplicably not outside his post at Tommy's door May 2 when the presence of the U.S. convoy was known? He'd been threatened with death so many times. Beheadings started after Tommy escaped. Why had they spared Tommy for so long?


When he reached the 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry, New York National Guard convoy, he said simply, "I'm Thomas Hamill." The soldier said, "We know who you are. Where did you come from?"

It's where Thomas Hamill is going, that's most inspiring.


To read more about Tommy Hamill and his book, and to see more photos, visit

Please share with us your inspiring stories about Tommy Hamill.

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My thoughts and my meditations are with you, though personally absent; and my petitions to Heaven are, that the things which make for peace may not be hidden from your eyes.
Abigail Adams, letter to John Adams, February 8, 1797, as he was inaugurated the second president of the United States.