Soldiers recount rescue of U.S. hostage
May 4, 2004
They were on foot patrol amid sheep and tomato fields in the middle of nowhere, when a bearded man came running toward them, falling and getting back up, waving his shirt and shouting. At first they thought he was an Iraqi, maybe a farmer.
But then they heard: “I’m an American!” he yelled. “I’m an American! I’m an American POW!”
And so began the rescue of Thomas Hamill, held captive since April 9 after insurgents snatched him from a convoy. His rescuers were a platoon of Army National Guard soldiers, of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry Regiment out of Gloversville, N.Y., deployed to Iraq for just a few months.
Capt. George Rodriguez, 2nd Lt. Joseph Merrill and Sgt. 1st Class Mark Forbes — who found themselves at a Green Zone news conference Monday in front of the international media — were suitably modest.
“All we did was find this man and get him out of there,” said Forbes, 43, a construction manager in civilian life. “It wasn’t some ‘Delta Force raid,’” he said, making air quotations with his fingers.
Added Merrill, 28, of the rescue, “It actually felt kind of good.”
Hamill, a truck driver with Kellogg, Brown & Root, had been kept in a small building near a house “in the middle of the desert,” the soldiers said, about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad. He’d heard the Humvees that were trailing the foot patrol, then pushed his way out the door blocked with a piece of metal and some wood, and made a dash for the soldiers.
He was shoeless and thirsty, with a gunshot wound in his arm. He said he’d been moved around a lot in the past weeks but had been laxly guarded recently.
“He said, ‘I could have escaped a bunch of times, but where am I going to go with one bottle of water and no map?’” Forbes said.
Hamill, a 43-year-old former dairy farmer from Mississippi, appeared to be in good health, they said, although a little thinner. They offered him food and water before he was airlifted to a hospital near Tikrit, and they said he took the water but turned down the food, saying he’d just eaten.
On Monday, Hamill was moved to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for a checkup and treatment for his gunshot wound.
“He’s doing good, very good,” said Marie Shaw, spokeswoman for the medical center. “He’s in the medical surgical ward. He should be able to go home by the end of the week.”
Hamill’s wife, Kellie, who is flying from the States, will be meeting him at Landstuhl on Tuesday.
The platoon was out in the area providing security for civilians who were soon to arrive to repair a pipeline Sunday when Hamill appeared at about 10:30 a.m. About 40 of them, they said, were doing a sweep of the fields, on foot and with Humvees driving behind them. It was the first time their unit had patrolled the area, although other patrols have been in the area before, they said.
Hamill took them back to where he’d been kept. There was no one in the building. Some small children and an older woman were in the house.
The soldiers detained two men walking in the area, but it was unknown if they had any connection to Hamill’s kidnapping, authorities said.
The soldiers also found an AK-47 in the grass, and said they believed that it belonged to the man who’d been guarding Hamill but who took off when he saw the soldiers coming through the fields.
Hamill was ecstatic, they said, to see them. “He wanted to be around Americans,” Forbes said. “He said, ‘Don’t leave me here.’”
It was also an emotional moment for them. “When he got on that bird to leave,” Forbes said, “I had tears in my eyes.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.