Lessons From Locked Up Abroad: Escaping Your Captors

The men and women drawn to military contract work do so for various reasons, but the main one is risky jobs pay well. Really well. For example, at the beginning of the Iraq war KBR’s starting salary for a truck driver was around $125,000. To put that into perspective, the starting salary for a US tractor-trailer driver is under $30,000 with the maximum salary stretching to just below $70,000. Even the best drivers in our country have a reason to consider quitting and becoming military contractors instead.

In addition to the tempting salaries, the hazardous work appeals to thrill-seekers and those looking for an alternative way to serve their country. Tommy Hamill was one of those people. He drove a big rig for 33 years (mostly in-and-around Macon, Mississippi) and was in search of a new adventure. Not long after America invaded Iraq, his opportunity came.

Anyone who enters a war zone understands its dangers, and Tommy was no exception. As convoy commander at Camp Anaconda he was in charge his life and the lives of other civilian truckers. He never let down his guard when he left the base. Yet no matter how much he prepared for his missions, he knew it was nearly impossible to predict the guerrilla tactics of the insurgents.

In war (as with most anything), you try to not to take on more risks than you can handle. In Tommy’s case, his convoy routinely drove over infamous stretches of road contractors had nicknamed “Widow Maker,” “Sniper Alley,” and “IED Boulevard.” The missions were difficult enough on a “good” day, so there was no need to add to their troubles unless it was absolutely needed.

On April 9th, 2004 Tommy received orders to deliver fuel down in the Baghdad area. It was also the first anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. It was the kind of extra risk to be avoided, and intelligence reports overwhelmingly predicted heightened violence on that day. Tommy knew he was in for a bad day, but he wasn’t about to let down the US military.

Although the convoy was given additional military support, it was not enough to prevent the ambush. As Tommy recalls, “Almost immediately, it just opens up everywhere. I was in the kill zone.” He suffered a bullet wound in his arm and was quickly captured by insurgents. For the next 24 days, he was a prisoner of war.

Tommy eventually escaped his captors, but only because he kept a cool head and never gave up. If you think you’ll be in a situation where getting kidnapped is a real possibility, you may want to take a few notes from Tommy’s ordeal.

  • When Tommy was taken hostage, his kidnappers used violence, confusion and intimidation to panic him into submission. He didn’t know his captor’s intentions, but he chose to cooperate instead of resisting them. This choice insured his safety until the chaos eventually calmed down.
  • Most kidnappings are done for the money ransom, and a dead hostage won’t earn a dime. Once Tommy figured this out, it gave him hope and emboldened his determination.
  • Study your captors routines. Note any weaknesses or gaps that could be used to aid in an escape.
  • Use whatever is at your disposal to draw attention to your location.
  • Don’t be quick to escape when you see an opening. One of Tommy’s guards left an AK unattended, which Tommy could have used to blast his way out of his cell. In the end he decided against it, because he lacked the conviction he could escape unharmed.
  • Tommy’s holding cells were poorly constructed, and he was given several opportunities to leave. But timing is key when planning an escape. It wasn’t until he heard the US convoy that he decided to take a leap of faith, and it turned out to be a move that earned him back his freedom.

For Tommy’s full harrowing story, be sure to tune in to Locked Up Abroad: Highway to Hell tonight at 10P et/pt


  1. John
    San Diego
    May 17, 2012, 8:11 am

    This was a great episode — and a real account from a genuine person, unlike that BS story spewed from Eric Aude’s douchebag mouth. If only Eric had been in Iraq, we wouldn’t have needed the US Army!

    Anyway, glad Mr. Hamill made it home safely to his family, and I thank him for doing his part to help the US in Iraq — way to maintain your dignity and recount the events with humility and a sense of humor!

  2. Alessandra Shepel
    March 27, 1:38 pm

    I just saw this episode and it was one of the best episodes of “Locked Abroad” one of my favorite programs. The only thing it bothered me I could not understand why the driver ran away and did not help Tommy or let the car he escaped to wait for him, perhaps they thought he had no chance. & all would be taken down…Tommy definitely is a special person and I believe his faith had a lot to do with his surviving…I was also glad to see that some of the Iraquis were fair, some even nice and actually helped him survive.