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Switching to convoy gunner a fateful choice

Dec. 28, 2007 - 06:11PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 28, 2007 - 06:11PM  |  
Allen Hill, left, is recovering from injuries, including a collapsed lung, some brain damage and post-traumatic stress, he sustained Nov. 21 after an IED exploded in Iraq. Hill covers his face after feeling pain in his chest while sitting at home with his wife, Gina, and son, Dreyson, 4, in their home in Ottawa, Kan., on December 21.
Allen Hill, left, is recovering from injuries, including a collapsed lung, some brain damage and post-traumatic stress, he sustained Nov. 21 after an IED exploded in Iraq. Hill covers his face after feeling pain in his chest while sitting at home with his wife, Gina, and son, Dreyson, 4, in their home in Ottawa, Kan., on December 21. (JASON HUNTER / THE TOPEKA CAPITAL-JOURNAL VIA THE)
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OTTAWA, Kan. — Spc. Allen Hill wakes in the middle of the night with a real-life movie playing on repeat.

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OTTAWA, Kan. — Spc. Allen Hill wakes in the middle of the night with a real-life movie playing on repeat.

Gunner position. Night-vision goggles. A man fidgeting with something. A white light, then nothing. Over and over the scene plays, and the 39-year-old Hill can't seem to dislodge it from his mind.

He is in Kansas for the holidays with his family before returning in early January to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he will continue treatment and finish paperwork to receive at-home care when he returns to Kansas.

The physical signs of that day one month ago are waning, but even in the security of his Ottawa home, the mental pain continues.

Hill joined the Army in Texas in 1986 at age 18. He was placed at Fort Riley in 1990 and has lived in Kansas since. He fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War before joining the Army National Guard.

When war again found Iraq, Hill was deployed from August 2005 to November 2006. He deployed again in January 2007 with the 731st Transportation Company out of Larned.

Hill's unit served as convoy security, where he most often drove the Humvees. That was until Nov. 21, the day before Thanksgiving.

"I had driven and driven and driven and the monotony ..." he trails off.

He wanted a change and asked to be in the gunner position for this mission. Up top, exposed and vulnerable.

The 38-vehicle convoy rolled out of Baghdad around 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 21 en route to Tallil, 200 miles to the south. Besides Hill's change of position, it was a typical drive with light chatter from soldiers over the radio.

Then the radio scratched with a different tone. The second vehicle in the convoy had been hit two, maybe three miles ahead. Hill was alert.

From his position, he scanned the darkening landscape first with a flood light. Nothing. He flipped his night-vision goggles down and scanned again. A man fidgeting with something. Hill's mind scampered for the rules of engagement in this situation. Before he could react, he saw a white light, then everything went black.

Hill awoke a few days later in a hospital in Germany.

"Where's my wife?" he wondered.

Memories of his time in Germany come in short blasts with giant blank spots all around.

A tube down his throat, another snaking out of his chest. The sheer force of the improvised explosive device had thrown him back against the Humvee and his steel-plated jacket crushed his chest. Doctors had to insert a tube first to drain fluid, then to inflate his collapsed lung.

At some point, he talked with his wife Gina, 33, but he doesn't remember the conversation. Another day, doctors walked in with questions. "Do you know who you are?"

"Yes, I know myself," he said. "Who are you?"

He then dozed off again.

He can remember the soldier across the hall who had half his skull blown off. The back half of his brain was exposed.

Hospital attendants would later tell Hill he screamed in the night.

"Run to the gate!"

"Incoming!"

"Go to the bunker!"

He was eventually transferred to Walter Reed, where the treatment was "nothing short of phenomenal," Hill said.

"It's not just the soldier they take care of, they also take care of the family," Gina said.

Life at home in Ottawa can be difficult with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hill feels naked without his weapon. When in the car, every pothole is an IED crater, every bridge a perfect hiding place for insurgents. At a recent Christmas gathering, Gina watched her husband stand in the crowd, scanning the room, hypervigilant of an enemy 7,000 miles away.

Even at home, talking with his wife, he will zone out as he stares through the window.

"I don't want to be alone, but I don't want to go anywhere," Hill said.

Then there are the flashbacks. Awake four times a night, Hill can see that white flash like a broken record. He isn't sure what happens now.

"Trying to project further than two weeks is futile," he said.

This is all Hill knows for sure: He loves the Army. He gets most excited when talking about the good he sees the U.S. enacting in that war-torn country across the globe.

"It's like going back in time 60 years," he said of the atmosphere. "Our homeless have more than most Iraqis."

You can see the bond he formed with many of the country's residents when he talks about helping people "carry their goats or fix their bikes and put a Band-Aid on their kids' owies."

With all that's happened, would he return to Iraq?

"In a second," he said. "If the docs say I can go, then I'm gone."

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