Warren vet had target on his back

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.

WARREN – Serving in the U.S. Army for 20 years, Dustin Hockensmith said he went from working with special operations to being one of the biggest targets during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Warren man enlisted in May 1988 and originally worked in psychological operations, working with battlefield deception and harassment operations.

Hockensmith, 43, started on the loud speaker team, playing sound effects in the battlefield.

“Sound effects of truck convoys to trick the enemy, helicopters and tanks. I’d carry it on my back, actually be broadcasting while strapped to my back,” he said.

After years of working as an officer, in 2003 he was called to serve in Iraq.

“I was called up to be a platoon leader. I was deployed to the war in April 2003. It was here I started my many fuel missions with a tanker unit,” he said.

Hockensmith’s job was to haul diesel fuel and gasoline from Kuwait to Iraq in tankers.

After being a platoon leader for only three months, he was promoted to captain, allowing him to get off the road and command a unit.

While part of his unit moved to Iraq and the others stayed in Kuwait, he said for the most part, he tried to stay away from the city as much as possible due to the violence and heavy casualties.

One event that sticks with him to this day was when his unit hauled fuel to a gas station in Ad Diwaniyah, Iraq.

“All these cars lined up when they heard gas was coming,” he said. “As we were downloading, we spent the day with Iraqi engineers. It was really great to be able to sit with them and ask questions and get an insight into their country, their government and the events that had recently taken place.”

One topic of conversation Hockensmith shared with the Iraqi engineers was the controversy over the development of weapons of mass destruction. He said everyone there knew people who worked with chemical weapons, and that he was shocked that many back home dismissed the allegations.

“The fact that the media said there wasn’t was a joke,” Hockensmith said. “And today, people still think it wasn’t there.”

The biggest concern for Hockensmith’s unit were the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. He said they were the greatest weapons the insurgency had against them.

“They would put them on the side of the road for when we drove by. The military police would get called when one was found and deal with it. They also would find chemical weapons in some, sarin gas. It was plentiful over there.”

Hockensmith said the IEDs would detonate if directly hit by an object or in an ambush site set up by the enemy. This fear of IEDs led highest headquarters to release memoranda regarding the soldiers’ safety, stating no one should drive on highways faster than 55 mph.

“I told my unit to drive faster,” Hockensmith said. “The enemy wanted the IEDs to explode when were over them. The slower you drove, the easier it is to get the timing right.”

Under Hockensmith’s orders, soldiers in his unit were to drive 65 mph or faster, and for good reasons.

“We were the biggest target on the highways. A tanker full of fuel means the biggest explosion if ignited,” he said.

Fortunately, his unit was only hit once by the enemy, and it was an empty tanker. Hockensmith said a majority of the time, because of heavy traffic on the highways, they didn’t travel those routes. Instead, they would transport tanks on trailers and move through different parts of the area, like the northern part of Kuwait.

Despite the danger, Hockensmith’s unit only suffered one fatality, but it was one of the hardest days they had to face as group. He said that the combination of high speeds and lack of traffic laws in Iraq and Kuwait caused numerous serious accidents, and their comrade fell victim.

Sgt. Jarrett B. Thompson was injured in a traffic accident on Sept. 7, 2003. He was immediately evacuated to Germany, where his wife and family were by his side when he died.

“It was extremely difficult when I had to speak at the memorial service,” Hockensmith said, reminiscing about the times when the two would perform overseas at talent shows together.”We sang ‘Blaze of Glory’ or any song I knew the words to. He played the guitar.”

Hockensmith’s passion for music was a type of reinforcement, and he continued to sing throughout his mission in Iraq and even had the opportunity to perform the national anthem for the Cleveland Indians’ home opener in 2007.

After retiring in May 2008, an aspiring musician and songwriter, Hockensmith wrote and dedicated an entire album to his experiences overseas titled “Inside Tracks,” consisting of songs about God, the terror of war, and how he survived physically, mentally and spiritually.

Though most soldiers who deploy can’t wait to return home, transition back into the civilian life and experiments with career opportunities, Hockensmith’s last 20 years in the service became a way of life.

“You have high expectations of coming home, but it’s always disappointing,” he said. “Everybody has problems in their life, but you’re under such hardships over there, so you don’t have time to think about problems.”

Longing for his home away from home, there are even times he wished he could return as a civilian with a business or organization made up of retired personnel, but “there’s always a different set of problems … here or with something like that,” he said.