Danger Zone

Truckers from all over the world have converged on Iraq for well-paying jobs hauling freight. The rewards are substantial, but so is the danger. Private contractors have become the targets of insurgents.

On a Thursday in early May, trucker Ken Krueger is on the phone with someone 7,000 miles away. He’s tired from a long day on the road. It’s hot, and he’s frustrated. He has worked about 95 hours in the last seven days and has another week of grueling conditions to look forward to.

The long hours are only the beginning. The West Texas truck driver, who goes by the handle Grizzly, could be shot tomorrow; he could end up a captive in the middle of the desert; or he could die in a fiery roadside explosion. “The money nowhere near compensates me for the dangers I face on a daily basis,” says Krueger, a driver in Iraq for KBR, a subsidiary of military contractor Halliburton.

At the same time that Krueger decompresses from a day on the dangerous highways of Iraq, Jeff Mills, a trucker from Rock Island, Ill., is putting the desert behind him. Mills, a Schneider National driver, spent a year as a driver in Iraq when his National Guard unit deployed to support the U.S. invasion. Home now, he avoids the news and prepares to haul glass, a cargo vastly different than what he hauled during his tour of duty.

“This is my way of moving forward, pushing myself back to driving,” Mills says. “I was looking forward to going back to work when I was in Iraq. I need to get back into a work routine and relax. I need to worry about four-wheelers instead of improvised explosive devices.”

Meanwhile, in Macon, Miss., trucker and dairy farmer Thomas Hamill is convalescing – home a few weeks after a harrowing, well-publicized escape from Iraqi insurgents. He went to Iraq to earn money for his family and instead became a symbol of the violence even civilians face there.

In May, he uses his wounded arm to play catch with his son and also to shake the hands of well-wishers, who come from as far away as Indiana to welcome him home. He has an offer to return to finish the job, but he doesn’t know if he’ll accept it. “I’ve got to think of the future of my children before I go back. I want them to not be worried about their father.”

Since the United States invaded Iraq in April 2003, thousands of truck drivers have been called up with their National Guard units or have signed on with firms like KBR to earn tax-free annual salaries as large as $120,000. Civilian drivers cite various reasons for going: the money, a sense of patriotism or a desire for adventure. Despite the dangers, they are a vital link in the U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq and secure the peace.

Here are three of their stories.

Schneider driver Jeff Mills spent a year in Iraq as part of his National Guard duty. Back home now, Mills is happy to be avoiding cars instead of roadside explosives.

Schneider driver avoids ‘kill zone’ during National Guard tour

The orange tractor-trailer Jeff Mills is driving today for Schneider National is a far cry from the rig he piloted for much of the last year: a five-ton straight truck typically loaded with soldiers, prisoners of war or ammunition.

“It has the capability of hauling passengers and cargo,” says Mills, a soldier with the 2133rd Transportation Company of the Iowa National Guard, based in Centerville, Muscatine and Cedar Rapids. “It’s equipped with fold-down wooden seats and a canvas top. Desert canvas. It’s basically got seats, a steering wheel, clutch, shifter and gauges. Definitely no cruise control.”

The 40-year-old trucks also don’t provide a lot of protection or armor for the National Guardsmen who pilot the supply-line workhorse of the U.S. Army, especially in areas where the fighting is hot and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are common. Mills, a former Marine, drove in Iraq with his guard unit from June 2003 to April in some of the most violent areas of Iraq.

The names on his map included Fallujah, a city of 230,000 that has claimed the lives of dozens of U.S. soldiers since the war began. In addition to Fallujah, Mills’ company supplied forward operating bases in the western third of Iraq, an area so dangerous that Marines were sent back in to pacify the area.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we got there,” Mills says, from his home in Illinois in May. “We were never prepared for what we were doing. The training we did in Wisconsin to prepare for deployment was based on a European kind of fight. We had to change tactics and adapt to a new environment. We had to learn how to defend ourselves and protect against ambushes.”

Ambushes and IEDs are plentiful on the highways of Iraq, where private contractors and U.S. soldiers have become victims of insurgents and terrorists. “The convoys are the main targets, because they know that’s how we move the fuel and freight,” he says. “They think if they can stop these convoys, the U.S. will leave.”

For the truckers and soldiers operating the convoys, just driving causes an intense level of stress, Mills says. Sometimes the asphalt and concrete highways are like U.S. interstates, though with potholes and other damage.

“There are lots of upheavals in the road, which makes a rough ride in the trucks,” Mills says. “There’s no air ride, and you don’t relax. You’re constantly on the lookout for cars, for IEDs, repaired spots in the road, wires on the road. We even check out dead animals because some Iraqis will stick an IED inside the carcass.”

Truckers in desert fatigues learn to look at overpasses for Iraqis with weapons. They try to maintain proper distance between vehicles so in case one truck is hit, there won’t be more than one in the “kill zone,” Mills says. “There are a lot of things going on out there. You’re constantly on the alert. After driving, when you get where you are going, you’re worn out, exhausted.”

The convoys Mills drove in were accompanied by light armor, usually gun trucks with 50-caliber machine guns and grenade launchers. Still, even with cautious tactics and offensive “reach out” weapons, Mills’ unit was targeted frequently. In November, Army Sgt. Aaron Sissel, a 22-year-old friend of Mills and a member of his National Guard Unit, was killed in an ambush where insurgents used IEDs and rocket-propelled grenades. Another friend, Spc. Joseph Dottchalk, is still recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Even the cargo sometimes was a source of stress for Mills, who moved prisoners on a regular basis. “It’s scary, dangerous work,” he says. “I tried to stay away from the Iraqis. I never got close to them. I didn’t want to take the risk.”

Most of the convoys Mills took part in were two and a half to three hours one way, but some trips were longer, depending on the distance to a forward operating base. Driving generally took place in the day, but in safer areas, south of Baghdad and in Kuwait, convoys moved at night. In addition to ambushes, drivers had to put up with brutal wind and sandstorms.

“We’d be running 40 to 45 miles per hour and drop down to 10 to 15 miles per hour. The sand is really fine. We did a lot of maintenance, changing air filters and tires. We chewed through a lot of tires. They’re not capable of handling the temperature. Temps around 140 degrees take a toll on the equipment.”

Back on base, the living conditions were somewhat better than life on the road. Mills’ unit lived in a brick and concrete building with indoor showers and outdoor portable toilets. The unit had electricity and a recreation room, and they slept on bunk beds or cots in heated and air-conditioned rooms.

“The food was OK for being in Iraq,” Mills says. “It generally tasted like Iraq regardless of what it was. The best thing over there was Outback Steakhouse. They came over and fixed Bloomin’ Onions, steaks and associated foods.”

But Mills was happy to trade those quarters in for a trip back to the states in April when he returned home to his wife, Kelli. By May, he was ready to get back on the road again in his old position with Schneider National.

“You won’t lose your seniority, and they give you back the same position,” Mills says. “They also give you any bonuses you would have earned and any pay increases.”

The company is generous with its National Guard employees, bridging employee benefits during military call-ups, organizing volunteers to take family members out to dinner when drivers are away and making up the pay difference between Schneider and the U.S. military. At the Guard’s request, Schneider moved a car from Florida – free of charge – for the family of a guardsman who lost his legs in Iraq because the family needed the car in Washington, D.C., where he is recovering.

The company and the Guard are also easing Mills’ return to private life. For a month after his return from Iraq, Mills was able to reacquaint himself with his wife and relax.

As Mills prepares to take to the road again, his mind drifts to his brothers in arms, to Sissel and Dottchalk and to the Marines he met as he was preparing to go home, but he puts the thoughts from his head. “I don’t watch CNN, CNBC, the national networks. I watch a little local news, but I flip it over if they start talking about Iraq. I guess my fight’s over. I need to distance myself away from it. It’s hard right now. I got to meet a lot of the Marines over there. Some of these Marines over there that are dying I may have met. I don’t want to think about them.”

Trucker and dairy farmer Thomas Hamill was reunited with his family in May after escaping his captors in Iraq.

Mississippi driver survives captivity to become country’s most famous trucker

One of the benefits of being a truck driver is that you learn the lay of the land. This may be important when you’re navigating in the United States, but it can be life-saving when you’re trucking in Iraq.

That’s why after Thomas Hamill, 44, was captured by Iraqi insurgents in a deadly ambush on a supply convoy April 9, he kept his eyes peeled for something familiar. His guards changed his location frequently. “Four days was the longest I stayed in one place,” he tells Truckers News. “I’d driven a lot around that country, and I knew eventually they’d take me someplace I’d recognize.”

That hope – and prayer – kept him going during the 23 days of his captivity. But Hamill also tapped his other senses, and a sound caught his attention the morning of May 2: the rumble of a U.S. military convoy. “I’d been around enough military vehicles to know the sound of their engines,” he says.

He pushed open the door of the small stone farmhouse where he was being held, saw that a guard had left his gun on the ground and dashed a half-mile to the military convoy, waving a white shirt over his head and yelling, “I’m an American!”

“We thought he was an Iraqi farmer who was coming up to the trucks,” says Lieutenant Joseph Merrill, 28, with Charlie Company of the 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry Regiment, which was on a routine search for a break in an oil pipeline near Balad, north of Baghdad. “As he got closer, we heard he was speaking English.”

The soldiers put Hamill in a Humvee, gave him water and offered him food, which he declined, the Washington Post reported. He led them back to the building where he had been held. They surrounded the house but inside found only a bed, some water, food and medical supplies.

Hamill enjoyed a reunion with his wife Kellie at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, before returning home to the small town of Macon, Miss. He was content to be back with family and friends, and to have a bed. “I got a little sore sleeping on a thin mat on the floor,” he says.

But soon Hamill was being hailed as a hero on television and in newspapers around the United States. He said he’s not comfortable with that label and was reluctant to talk to the press. “I’m pretty shy and pretty emotional,” he explained to the camera crew perched in front of the steps of the Noxubee County Courthouse the evening after his homecoming, just before a prayer vigil in his honor.

“I didn’t want to play this up as a big grand-slam home run,” he said, adding that he was concerned about angering those who are holding other Americans hostage.

Hamill got nervous after his captors heard reports that U.S. soldiers were abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. “I hate that that happened,” he says. “They talked to me about it