North Alabama National Guardsmen recall Iraq War

Joseph Gibson and Bill Hatton on Convoy in Mosul Iraq.

The war in Iraq began on March 20, 2003 and ended December 18, 2011. As of June 29, 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Defense casualty website, 31,952 American soldiers were wounded in action (WIA) as a result of the Iraq War. This is the story of two local North Alabama men who are included in that number.

Several of our local National Guardsmen and Women fought in this war. They were all brave, courageous people who wanted nothing more than to stay at home with their families, but were duty and honor bound to serve the country that Bill Hatton describes as the greatest country on earth.

Hatton is from Sheffield. A fireman in his normal life, he was a medic and a cable lineman in Iraq. He joined the Reserves in 1985.  

Joseph Gibson of Hatton, Alabama, was also a cable lineman. They called them Cable Dogs. Both were assigned to National Guard units in their respective counties, however, the two units sometimes trained together and were deployed at the same time. 

Both recall where they were on September 11, 2001, when news of the bombing of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the plane that went down in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, flashed across television screens. Bill was on duty at Sheffield Fire Station #1. “Everyone just gathered around the television,” Hatton recalled, “There was a feeling of disbelief. We were glued to the television as it unfolded. Later the City of Sheffield had a prayer service. We all went.”

Joseph was in boot camp at Ft. Sill, Ok when the news hit. “I was cleaning field equipment,” he said. “My first thought was that it was a terrorist attack, and I figured right then that I’d be over there sooner or later.”

He graduated the very next day. “All of us were mad,” he said. “Most of us would have gotten on a plane right then and gone to fight.” 

Bill had been in Egypt, but remembers Iraq as being hotter than the land of the Pharaohs. He was 36 years old when he was deployed to Iraq. Just before September 11, the armory housing Bill’s unit had closed. He was sent to Military Occupational School (MOS) at Ft. McClellan in October, then to Ft. Campbell, KY in December 2003. Joseph’s unit was also sent to Ft. Campbell. This is where they first met, assembled there for battalion training in desert warfare. 

Joseph was 21 when his unit in Moulton was called up. Both agree that in spite of long, grueling hours of training in the hottest parts of the U.S. and although they were introduced to the climate in Kuwait, where they stayed for two weeks upon their arrival in the Middle East, nothing could compare with the shimmering heat that rose up from the desert floor of Iraq. 

Actually, nothing could have really prepared them for war. Real war, not paint ball or simulated battles, or the anticipation of it from stories they’d heard or movies they’d seen, nothing can compare with the ever present danger of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and mortar rounds whizzing through the air at any time of the day or night. Even though Joseph was once shot at with a shotgun in the act of rolling yards, that didn’t even come close to this. This was the real thing.

“It got real to some of us before others,” added Bill. 

They arrived in Kuwait in March, 2004, and by the end of the month they had been transferred to Mosul, Iraq. The base where they were stationed was positioned near one of Saddam’s fallen palaces. The town around it was a hotbed of discontent with friendly and unfriendly Iraqis occupying the war torn area. It was impossible to tell which was which. They could never let their guard down, even when they fell exhausted into their bunks at night; they became conditioned to listen for the explosion of mortar rounds.

Not long after he got there, Joseph recalls hearing the squeal of a rocket. “I was asleep and it woke me up. It hit pretty close by, kicking up dirt and sand, spraying shrapnel,” he said. “When you first get there you are scared to death, but after you’ve been there for a while you learn to gage the distance and you know if you are in immediate danger.” 

Joseph describes it as going from Moulton, where you might hear a car backfiring occasionally, to a place where missiles go off and mortar rounds are fired at all hours of the day and night. Joseph recalls that when he heard the first missile begin to whine his immediate thought was, “Oh, Lord, please don’t let me go out in a pile of naked, blown up men!”

To occupy their spare time they did things to make the situation more normal. Joseph played cards a lot, and he was a big practical joker, keeping his buddies on their toes.  “I guess you can find some way to have fun anywhere you go,” he said. 

They say that the food wasn’t half bad, with Surf and Turf on Fridays, but they missed the food at home. For Joseph, it was pinto beans and cornbread that he missed most. 

Although they didn’t have very much interaction with the civilians in the area, they often threw candy to children who ran after their vehicles, reaching out to grab the sweet treats that they knew were coming. 

Their work kept them busy. The cable lines they laid made it possible for units to communicate with one another.  

On September 9, 2004, the unit stationed in Mosul was calm, if hot, about 85 degrees even in the early morning hours. Bill, Joseph and another soldier, Darren Gross, from Sheffield, were assigned to a job in the outlying area of the occupied zone. Bill was driving, Gross was in the passenger’s seat and Joseph was in the unprotected back of the Humvee. There were three other vehicles in their convoy. 

As per their training, they all kept a sharp lookout for IED’s. “The enemy would often hide such devices under piles of garbage, dead dogs, anything they could conceal the bombs under,” Joseph explained. 

They had only been on the road about 20 minutes when they came upon two stalled semi-trucks. They cautiously pulled around the vehicles that were blocking one lane. 

The convoy commander ordered them to proceed, using the free lane. 

Somewhere, unseen and cowardly, a hand moved quickly to trip a switch that detonated a bomb in their path. The bomber would have to have been close enough to see when the timing was perfect. 

The first thing they saw was a ball of rolling orange fire at their side. The explosion shook the Humvee on its chassis, cracking five-inch windows. Joseph, who was sitting on a swivel seat in back, was thrown to the floor of the truckbed. There was no time to react in any way, it happened with the speed of light – then sound. The repercussion from the blast deafened them for a moment, but Joseph still recalls hearing cheering and jeering from the people who were near enough to have witnessed the blast. 

Their training kicked in automatically. Bill drove them out of the kill zone. Darren crawled into the back to assess Joseph’s wounds. Bill and Joseph had sustained shrapnel wounds, Joseph had been hit in the leg, the shoulder and his face was covered in flash burns from a heat so intense that it melted the watch on his left arm. Luckily for him, Oakley makes their glasses to withstand just about anything, and that day, because of his shades, Joseph’s eyesight was saved. “They shattered but didn’t break,” he said. 

Joseph was unconscious for minutes, he doesn’t know exactly how long and the others were busy dealing with the road and getting somewhere that could give medical attention to Joseph’s wounds. Bill and Darren changed places so that Bill was able to do what he could for his brother in arms. It looked grim. There was a lot of blood, Joseph’s face was a red mask. 

Bill could tell that the leg wound was the more serious of Joseph’s injuries. The shrapnel had clipped the femoral artery. It was a long ten minutes before they got to a field medical unit, where they unloaded Joseph onto a stretcher and headed into surgery. 

He doesn’t remember feeling his leg or his shoulder because his face felt as if it were on fire. A shot of morphine gave him some relief. He drifted off as the surgical team prepared him for the operation that would save his leg. 

Looking back, Joseph realizes that had it not been for Bill’s attention on the way to the field hospital he probably would have died, but at the time dying never crossed his mind. The shrapnel had cut through the artery of his calf muscle below the knee.  “I didn’t even know what a femoral artery was,” he chuckled. At some point a doctor came to tell him that his leg had been saved. All Joseph remembers about this man was that he had a familiar Southern accent that was comforting and familiar. 

 Joseph and Bill recall leaving the field hospital together in a helicopter. “I always wanted to ride in one of those Black Hawk’s,” Joseph laughed, “But not flat on my back!” 

Bill’s injuries, although not as severe as Joseph’s, were still serious. Shrapnel had cut his lower leg and would prevent him from returning to the unit right away. He was on light duty for the following month. The day of the incident, once he was assured that Joseph was being taken care of, Bill made a hard phone call. His wife was shocked and fearful when he explained why he was calling. 

Joseph’s mother had already sensed that there was something wrong with her son even before he made his call from Mosul. “You know how mother’s are,” he said with raised brows. 

Both men agree that being away from their families was the worst part of overseas duty. It is a constant ache that doesn’t go away until they are back home, safe, with loving arms around them and only the familiar sound of cicadas mating at night instead of the annoying whine of artillery. 

Joseph was sent to Landstuhl, Germany. He was supposed to go to Walter Reed Hospital in the states, but after three days in Germany he was transported to Andrews AFB, for another few days, and then finally to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, where he stayed for a few months. He had surgery ever other day for a month.  

He would have been out of the hospital much sooner but a pseudomonas infection set up in his leg causing the doctors to be concerned about his life. 

When he finally arrived home, his first meal was pinto beans and cornbread. 

Back in Iraq, Bill kept tabs on his buddy’s progress. The two developed a bond that only soldiers know, a camaraderie formed of fear, practical jokes, sweat and blood and the smell of cordite and dirty socks. Their shared experiences bonded them in some ways even stronger than family ties. They consider themselves brothers. 

Bill came home on a two-week leave in October. “It was really rough to get on a plane and go back that time,” he admits. One of the first things he did was connect with Joseph at the Purple Heart Ceremony at Hatton High School. They were pinned by Gen. Dallas Fanning in October 2004. 

In February 2005, once again he deplaned in Huntsville. The leaden sky was spitting snow as the men of the 115th Signal Battalion stood in formation on the tarmac outside the airport. They were still in their desert camo uniforms, designed for a different kind of weather. In spite of the cold, the wind whipping their chapped faces, and the change in climate, and their exhaustion from the long 22-hour flight, the worst thing, says Bill, was looking at their families standing 20 feet away and not being able to run to them. 

They don’t remember how long they stood there. Joseph, who was home on convalescent leave, went to the homecoming as a part of Charlie Company, and rightly so. “It seemed like forever,” they said in unison, of standing in the cold while officers made speeches that they don’t remember.  

Bill’s eyes were glued to his wife and kids, ages nine and six, as they eagerly bobbed up and down both in excitement and to try to keep warm. 

When the battalion commander landed and gave a speech, he finally dismissed the troops who headed to their families for a long awaited welcome, hugs and tears of joy all around. Bill’s family and friends, as well as his fire department buddies were all there to welcome him home in style. 

Joseph still has trouble with his ears, often a piece of shrapnel will work its way out of them, and the hearing in his left ear is almost gone. Both of them have tinnitus, and Bill’s left foot is numb. Still, they are among the fortunate ones. As of June 29, 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Defense casualty website, there were 4,424 total deaths (including both killed in action and non-hostile) in the Iraq War. 

For these men and women, and others like them, who answer the call to defend our country from foes who would take away the freedoms we all enjoy, a thank you is just a little thing, but one of great importance. We learned from past mistakes what havoc war does to the minds of young people who go to the front lines of the places where terrorists and diabolical leaders plot ways to harm the United States. Many of them still can’t talk about their time spent in war zones. Others, like Joseph Gibson just say stoically that they were only doing their jobs. That sincere, “Thank You,” or a handshake, a hug or a salute, is not only a gesture, it is a way to convey to them that what they did was heroic, and appreciated by all who were at home while they were in places most of us will never see. 

It will never be enough to repay them for what they sacrificed, but one way to show our deep and continuing appreciation to those who served in any war or conflict is to honor them on Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day and by attending or participating in the Veterans’ Day Parade. The parade is scheduled for Friday, November 8, at 4 p.m.  Details to follow in The Moulton Advertiser

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