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News Transcript

Presenter: Col. Randal Dragon, commander, 2nd Brigade Combat Team
Monday, May 3, 2004 9:01 a.m. EDT

Coalition Provisional Authority Briefing

(Also participating; Capt. George Rodriguez, Lt. Joseph Merrill and Sgt. 1st Class Mark Forbes)

COL. DRAGON: Well, good afternoon.

I'd like to first introduce the individuals that are with me -- the soldiers that are with me today: Captain George Rodriguez right behind me here, company commander; Lieutenant Joe Merrill is a platoon leader; and Sergeant First Class Mark Forbes [is] a platoon sergeant.

I'd like to start with a brief statement. At 1030 hours on Sunday, 2 May at a location 70 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, a patrol from Task Force 1-26 Infantry was conducting security operations when they approached -- they were approached by a man claiming to be an American. The man identified himself as Thomas Hamill, a Halliburton employee who had been taken hostage by anti-coalition forces on 9 April. Mr. Hamill had a gunshot wound to his right forearm. He appeared to be in overall good health, but he was rendered medical aid by the soldiers on the scene.

The soldiers, who were assigned to Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry, and task organized to my brigade combat team, are from the New York National Guard. They secured Mr. Hamill, who then led them to the house where he had been held captive. The patrol conducted an immediate search of the house where Mr. Hamill was held, where they detained two males and seized one AK-47 rifle. There were no U.S. or Iraqi casualties in this operation.

At approximately 1200 hours, the patrol called for medical evacuation and a medevac helicopter transported Mr. Hamill to the nearest medical treatment facility, just north of Tikrit. Mr. Hamill received -- was arrived -- correction, arrived at the medical facility at approximately 1315 hours, where he received expert medical treatment by U.S. Army health care personnel.

The soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division are proud that we were able to assist in securing Mr. Hamill's freedom. We are equally proud of the courage of all civilians and military that have chosen to make a difference in this mission in Iraq.

I speak for every soldier in the 1st Infantry Division in saying that we are extremely honored to have the professionals of the 2nd Battalion of the 108th Infantry fighting as part of our team. The unit was mobilized just eight months ago and now serve, as do all coalition forces, to eliminate the threat here in Iraq while simultaneously helping to provide a stable environment and set the conditions for Iraqi civil and military self-reliance. Due to the efforts of these great soldiers here, an American will return home to his family. Freedom is priceless.

I'd like to ask Lieutenant Merrill to walk you through some pictures that were taken on the site yesterday.

LT. MERRILL: Good afternoon.

First slide.

This is the building which he was housed in. He was found on the door to the left. We were approximately 3[00] to 400 meters from this building, looking for a break in a pipeline, and he heard the humvees go through as we swept through. He ran out to us and flagged one of my team leaders down.

Next slide.

This is the inside of the room he was in. His bed. There were some medical supplies there, and food. He said that he had actually just opened some of the food that they had given him when he heard the humvees coming through.

Next slide.

And the gentleman on the right is my team leader, who immediately recognized him when he came across the field. And the gentleman on the left is our platoon medic.

Once he came up to the trucks, our platoon medic -- we gave him water. Our platoon medic assessed his wound on his arm and re-dressed the bandage.

And I think that's the last slide.

COL. DRAGON: We'd like now to take any questions that you've got.

STAFF: Go ahead.

Q Utzcar Henshelwood from CNN. How did he escape?

COL. DRAGON: Again, sir?

Q How did he escape?

COL. DRAGON: You'd have to ask Mr. Hamill.

STAFF: A follow-up?

Q Follow-up, yeah. Any idea who the people that captured him are associated with?

COL. DRAGON: I'm not going to divulge any information on that at this point in time, based on the situation that we've got. So I'd ask to defer those types of questions if we can.

Q Paul Peachy, AFP. Did he say anything to you about the fate of any of the other people that were kidnapped with him at the same time? And also, can you just tell us exactly what he said to you first of all when he came across the field, please?

LT. MERRILL: He initially came across the field and he had stated that he wanted to have us recognize him as an American, so he was waving his hand and shouting. He fell a couple of times. He walked up to the truck. And, you know, I don't know exactly what he said when he got here, when he got to my soldiers, but he was obviously very glad to see us. And once we found out -- we recognized who he was, we knew we had gotten somebody good. So.

STAFF: You had a follow-up?

Q Did he say anything to you about the fate of the others that were being held at the same time?

COL. DRAGON: We're going to speak to this particular operation in securing Mr. Hamill, sir.

STAFF: Go ahead.

Q [Through interpreter.] Favel Abuhaeli from Nofa Shababa newspaper. This person Hamill, the person who has been captured, he escaped from a site where he had been kept as a hostage. How much those people in front of us, who are standing in front of us, how much they exerted effort, or what is the signs of courage that they have shown so that we can be aware of what have those people in front of us done to this person in order to show their courageous level? So Hamill himself has done a good job and he himself was capable to run away. So can you tell us what those guys have done for him?

COL. DRAGON: The question has to do with the level of courage of the soldiers that stand in front of you. I can assure you that they, just like the other 130,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines serving here in Iraq, are displaying fortitude and courage every day. They were out conducting a combat patrol at the time that they recovered Mr. Hamill.

Q {Through interpreter.}) By the name of God, Allah af-Safar, from Adawa newspaper. You mentioned that Mr. Hamill, when he approached you, he just waved his hand and raised a flag, a white flag, although we know that he was British and you are from coalition forces. So why he raised this flag? Was he afraid that you will not recognize him or was he afraid that you might just be anti- coalition forces while he just raised this white flag?

COL. DRAGON: (Off mike) -- when he approached you, he waved a white flag and why he waved that white flag. Okay.


COL. DRAGON: You'll have to ask him that.

LT. MERRILL: He didn't wave a white flag. He came out in the field and he actually took his shirt off and waved his shirt in the air. And we -- as he got closer, we hear that he was speaking English. At first, at a distance, we thought he was an Iraqi farmer who was coming up to the trucks. As he got closer, we heard that he was speaking English. And the first man who walked up to him realized immediately that it was Mr. Hamill.

Q Luke Baker from Reuters. So -- can I just be clear? So he came running out of the house, and is he shouting, "I'm an American, I'm an American"? Can you just confirm that?

And then can you describe, well, you know, was he scared? You know, you said he fell over. Did he -- was he running very fast? Can you describe a bit more what the scene was like?

And then did any of you have your guns trained on him? Did you -- because you thought he was an Iraqi farmer who was running toward you, did anyone have sort of a gun, sort of their weapon on armed?

And also, when you went back to the house, what were the people doing? Were they sitting around with an AK-47? Were they running after him? Were they -- you know, what were they doing?

SGT. 1ST CLASS FORBES: The AK-47 was outside the building, over in the grass. And when we got to the building and went past the building and we -- when he came up to us, realized he was an American and realized he was a hostage, we immediately took the platoon back and swept back through the area that he was in.

The AK was found outside, and from where it was laying, we assessed that from what he had told us, that someone was watching him. He probably saw us coming and decided that 40 on one wasn't going to be a good day for him, so he probably ran off. That's why we found just the weapon; he probably walked off. The other detainees were just walking in the area. There was no other men in the house; it was just women and children.

Q And sorry, on the previous part of the question about, you know, when he's running towards you and what happened, and the look on his face, and that sort of thing.

CAPT. RODRIGUEZ: He was obviously very relieved once he realized we were Americans. He was yelling, "I'm an American, I'm an American, I'm an American POW." At a distance, we -- it was obvious that he was unarmed, so we did not have our weapons trained on him. He had his hands in the air waving his shirt around. So he was yelling, "I'm an American." As he got closer, we found what he was yelling. And as I say, once he got close up, we immediately recognized him.

Q (Through interpreter.) Hamzi Hashim from Al-Feyrat Newspaper. Has he mentioned -- Mr. Hamill, has he mentioned the personalities or identified the nationality of those who have kidnapped him? And how many were they?

COL. DRAGON: As far as Mr. Hamill and what he's mentioned, again, I'd ask you to ask him those questions directly. The information that he has given to us, immediately afterwards was given to the patrol, and that is currently being evaluated.

The second part of the question again?

INTERPRETER: He just wanted to know the number -- he just wanted to know the identify -- has he identified the nationalities and the number of those people who had kept him as a hostage, whether they were Moroccan or Syrian.

COL DRAGON: With respect to the information we've received, again, that information is currently being evaluated.

Q (Through interpreter.) (Inaudible) -- newspaper. Has Mr. Hamill identified the place where he was taken hostage? The media has reported that he is outside of Iraq. So couldn't he be here to take part in this conference?

COL. DRAGON: We placed Mr. Hamill on a medical evacuation helicopter and he was taken to a medical treatment facility, and then he was brought for repatriation. And I'd defer those questions to the JTF, JTF-7.

Q (Through interpreter.) Did he identify the exact place where he was taken hostage? Was it in the north? Was it in the south?

COL. DRAGON: When we picked him up, he was elated. He was happy to see an American patrol. His actions at that point in time were to address his wound. He took the patrol back to the house. The gentlemen here represent the unit that were on the ground at that time. As soon as the house was searched and he identified it, we put him on a medical evacuation [helicopter] and he was lifted out of the area at that point in time.

The information preceding and after that particular event will have to be answered by another -- either JTF-7 or another headquarters. All we're trying to do today is describe to you the events that occurred on the ground yesterday.

Q (Through interpreter.) From the photos we've seen, it's obvious that the hostage was not submitted to the same torture that the prisoners were submitted to in Abu Ghraib. Did he declare any kind of torture he suffered? And isn't it possible that the people who took him hostage just let him escape after the siege on Fallujah was ended?

CAPT. RODRIGUEZ: At that time that we got him, he did not say anything about being tortured. We offered him food and water. In fact, he took the water and refused the food because he said he had eaten that morning. So he stated that they had fed him -- his captors had fed him. So -- and that's all he said to me.

Q Quinn O'Toole with NPR. For the fellows who were on the patrol, could you tell us a little bit of the communication that went on when you saw him running across the field? Did you say anything over the radios? What was your reaction? I imagine this is the first American you've seen running across a field up to your patrol.

CAPT. RODRIGUEZ: Basically, the report that came in over the radio was there was an individual running towards the convoy. As he got closer, they identified him as an American. And as soon as they identified him as an American POW, came out over the radio, at that point we consolidated all the soldiers there and we moved towards the building.

Q What was your reaction, I mean, emotionally?

CAPT. RODRIGUEZ: It actually felt kind of good, something that I think everybody wanted to do. So --

Q (Through interpreter.) Sadek Rahim from Al-Damani newspaper. Where exactly in Tikrit have you found the hostage? Why was he find or made an attempt to escape ahead -- not exactly in that day? As you said that he has been left and the guard was off at that day, so why he didn't make any attempt to run away before this patrol coming in to him?

COL. DRAGON: Sir, again, that is a question you're going to have to ask Mr. Hamill.

STAFF: Last one. In the back.

COL. DRAGON: If I could just -- we had -- we were on the ground with him for an hour and 45 minutes, maximum. That is the extent of our participation in this operation. He approached -- again, as I mentioned in my statement, he approached the patrol, the patrol recovered Mr. Hamill. He voluntarily took the patrol back to the house that he had been captured from, and in that hour and 45 minutes, from the time that he was recovered till the time he got on the helicopter, he was rendered medical aid, given water and then medevaced out.

STAFF: Okay, last one. In the back. Thank you.

Q Gene Chu , NBC News. Colonel, Mr. Hamill was found quite a far distance north of where he was supposedly captured. Did it surprise you that your men were able to -- you know, that he was in your area, or did you have any sort of forewarning at all that he might, you know, be the -- you know, be in that area?

COL. DRAGON: That's a fair question.

We conduct aggressive patrols every day. Just as everybody else, I was glad that we were able to participate with the recovery of Mr. Hamill. We patrol this area frequently. And again, based on his account, you'll have to determine what his actions were and what led to his recovery. We know what we saw on the ground. I don't know if that answers your question, but we were all happy that we were able to participate in it.

STAFF: Okay. Thank you.

COL. DRAGON: Thanks. Thank you very much.

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