The convoy was moving quickly down the Phoenix route hauling fuel in support of the United States military in what has become known as the Sunni Triangle in Iraq.

A land mine went off under the drive wheels of vehicle No. 5 in the group and the truck went end-over-end and wound up facing the direction from which it came.

That’s when “Devil Dog” sprang into action.

Matthew “Brock” Gilbert, a 1983 graduate of Peaster High School, was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom in a January ceremony after being injured in a fire that resulted from the explosion.

Gilbert remembers vividly June 5, 2004, when he went into the cab of the disabled truck to aid the injured driver.

“We were on a convoy taking fuel to a camp called Camp Al-Assad,” he said. “We all dreaded going down this particular road. It’s 90 miles of land mine fields.

“I was a recovery driver,” he reported, “which means I had to respond to anything from a flat tire to what happened. My main goal is keeping my men out of a hostile situation so we can get on down the road.”

Gilbert said he knew the driver was in dire straits when he came upon the scene.

“His feet were coming out the windshield, so my first thought was to get the man out of the truck,” he said.

The injured driver was trapped by the steering wheel and was tangled in his safety belt, leaving one alternative for Gilbert.

“The doors were jammed,” Gilbert said. “The only thing I could do was crawl inside with him and drop him down.”

While he was inside the vehicle’s cab, crew members fighting the subsequent blaze ran out of fire extinguishers, allowing the flames to move into the driver’s compartment.

“The fire came through the floorboards and engulfed the truck and blew me out the windshield,” Gilbert said.

The driver died from his injuries and Gilbert suffered severe burns on his arms and facial lacerations for which he earned his citation, the civilian equivalent to the military’s Purple Heart.

The Parker County native downplays his injuries. In fact, he was back at work the next day getting re-bandaged and hitting the road.

“We had a lot of those days,” he said simply. “That’s the type of environment we were in every day over there.”

Gilbert, whose radio call sign is “Devil Dog,” and other members of the Kellogg, Brown and Root fuel delivery work force are unarmed and many times in the crossfire between U.S. troops and insurgents.

As of December 2005, with 22 months in country, Gilbert had participated in 245 missions in various jobs.

He started out delivering bulk fuel and advanced through the ranks to recovery driver. He also spent 14 months as a convoy commander.

Now he teaches convoy commanders how to survive and protect their cargo and drivers.

“When everything else shuts down,” Gilbert said, “the fuel still has to roll through. Unlike regular commodities, even when the roads are what we call ‘black,’ we still have to go out.”

The former Marine said he took the job to participate in freeing the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“I wanted to support the war effort,” he said, “I wanted to be able to help our nation.”

He admitted the compensation was one aspect to accepting the job.

“We may go there, initially, for the money, but once you get there you see what you’re doing is helping the Iraqi people,” he said.

“You see them improving every day. They’d been pushed down so hard, they’re still learning what it means to be free. Every time I see a young child over there smile, that’s when it all comes together. You’ll be driving down the road and you’ll pass the kids all dressed up for school. They have their books and they can now go on to school without having to worry about anybody messing with them.”

He said he couldn’t do his job without the help of Lynn, his wife of 15 years.

“Without her support, I’d never be able to do it,” Gilbert said, wiping his eyes. “She takes care of things back here.”

Lynn, keeping the Willow Park home fires burning, said the couple’s shared faith makes the time spent apart bearable.

“I miss him,” she said. “When he has to leave, I want to whine and make him stay. But we both feel like this is where he is supposed to be.”

She said when he was driving, they would pray together on the phone before each mission.

“We really are firm in our belief in God,” Lynn said.

She added her husband has always been courageous and compassionate.

“We came upon a wreck outside Austin,” she related. “He went to the accident scene and held the hand of a woman trapped in a car until the paramedics came. He’s that kind of guy.”

Gilbert, who returned to his job in Iraq the day after Easter, feels the outcome of Saddam’s trial will have a direct bearing on the conflict’s resolution.

“What they do with him will be a major turning point in the war,” he said. “There are still people who are afraid he’ll come back.”

If he does, he’ll have to deal with “Devil Dog.”

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