US hostage: from farm debt to Iraq

Adventure and work sent Tommy Hamill to Iraq. Now a town prays for him.

After years of trying to make it as a dairy farmer in rural Mississippi, Tommy Hamill finally decided last summer to do what virtually no one in agriculture ever wants to: sell the family farm.

He needed to pay off a mounting debt. Yet the sale didn't cover all the family's obligations. So Mr. Hamill, concerned about meeting his family's needs, and inspired by a sense of adventure and patriotism, took a job with a US contractor in Iraq that provided food, fuel, and clothing for US troops.

Now his well-intentioned decision has landed him in the middle of an international crisis with wrenching repercussions for his family and friends and posing new political challenges for the US occupation of Iraq.

As the lone American in a new wave of hostage-taking in Iraq, Hamill has overnight become a symbol of the dangers and deteriorating circumstances on the ground.

To his family and friends in this rural town in north central Mississippi, though, the crisis a half a world away is singularly personal. "Prayers are all we need right now," Hamill's wife, Kellie, said in an interview. "I'm doing about as good as can be expected under the circumstances."

"I got God, and I just trust in God," Vera Hamill, Tommy Hamill's grandmother, said.

For now, that's mainly all the family and those who know him in this impoverished stretch of Mississippi can do - pray and watch television for some glimmer of good news, and hope the next phone call does not bring the news they fear most.

Hamill was taken hostage Friday in the war-torn country by gunmen who rocketed a fuel convoy on the road between Baghdad and Fallujah. Saturday, in a video, the abductors threatened to kill and mutilate him if American troops did not pull out of Fallujah.

In the clip given to the Al-Jazeera, Hamill was shown in front of an Iraqi flag emblazoned with the words "Allahu Akbar," or God is great. Hamill gives his name and says he is 43 and from Mississippi. In part of the video, an announcer quotes Hamill as saying his captors were not mistreating him.

"I am in good shape. I work for a private company that supports the military action," the voice-over says. "I want my family to know that these people are taking care of me, and provide me with food, water, and a place to sleep."

The 43-year-old former dairy farmer and truck driver went from the security of his close-knit community to having his face shown over and over by television networks around the globe.

As the news spread through Noxubee County, where Tommy Hamill also was a volunteer firefighter and his wife is an 911 emergency dispatcher, friends called or visited the couple's neat brick ranch-style home.

A trampoline and a miniature football goal post sat unused in the yard. There's no fun for the couple's two children right now.

By Sunday, yellow ribbons were springing up like Easter flowers on utility poles, mailboxes, and car antennas across Noxubee County.

Easter services included special prayers for the Hamill family.

"We just hope and pray that he's going to be released and get to come home," says Dorothy Baker Hines, the mayor of Macon, the county seat of Noxubee County with a population of 12,500. "Folks here know each other, try to take care of each other. There are a lot of tears right now."

Petey Freshour, Macon's assistant police chief, echoes similar sentiments. "We came from the same community," he says. "It hits close to home when you really know somebody like that."

For many here, the incident has brought the US occupation into their living rooms in a way they don't want.

"It's pretty much a shock when it's this close to home," adds Jim Robbins, another family friend. "We just hope and pray for his safe return."

Hamill went to Iraq last September after taking a job as a fuel tanker driver with Kellogg, Brown, and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company which has a $4.5 billion contract to provide fuel, food, and clothing for US forces.

He is among about 25,000 employees the company has in Iraq and Kuwait, many of whom, like Hamill, were attracted to the jobs by adventure, love of country, and high pay when good jobs in their own communities were few and far between.

Indeed, friends describe Hamill as driven by hard work and love of family.

"That's what he thought he needed to do to help his family," Mr. Freshour said of Hamill's decision late last summer to take a job that would send him to Iraq. "Tommy's a hard worker, that's what he knows."

Hamill sold his dairy farm after fighting a losing battle to survive in the industry. With more than 11 percent of Noxubee County's workers unemployed and the median household income just over $22,000 - $9,000 less than the state median - he saw financial hope in the Halliburton job.

"With this job, he saw a way to help get us back on track," Kellie Hamill said in an interview prior to her husband's abduction.

Hamill signed on for a one-year hitch in Iraq, but was considering extending it on a month-to-month basis after that, his wife said.

Hamill and other truck drivers travel in convoys with security guards. They drive only during the day and often steer their convoys down the middle of the road to avoid ambushes by passing vehicles. Drivers are told by Halliburton to run passing cars off the road if they feel threatened.

The Hamills did know the dangers, especially since at least 12 employees of the Houston-based Halliburton and its subcontractors have been killed and another 40 wounded in Iraq. The worst came March 31 when four workers were killed, burned to death, mutilated, and hanged from the Euphrates River bridge in Fallujah.

"I think everyone knew the risks. He saw things, faced danger, saw it everyday," Freshour said. "You just never think it's going to happen. Now it's not that far away, it's not just on television. It's right here, it's home."

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