US marks Iraq war, five years on
PM - Tuesday, 6 May , 2008 18:38:00
Reporter: Geoff Thompson

MARK COLVIN: Five years ago last week George Bush made his mission accomplished speech aboard an aircraft carrier and declared an end to major combat operations.

Half a decade on, the US troops are still there in large numbers and there's no imminent end in sight to hostilities in Iraq.

In 2003, when the US Marines raced from Kuwait to Baghdad, the ABC's Geoff Thompson was embedded with them.

Five years on Geoff 's been back to Iraq and to the United States to catch up with five of the men he first met under such extraordinary circumstances.

The full story airs on Foreign Correspondent later tonight, but now, for PM, Geoff tells us the story of two marines the war has affected in very different ways.

GEOFF THOMPSON: As the fifth anniversary of the war passed, the number of American military deaths crossed the 4,000 milestone. At least 50,000 more have been seriously injured.

Perhaps it is true of all wars, but as I walked among the gravestones of Iraq's dead at Arlington Cemetery in Washington, I was struck by how young they were. Many of them had been born, lived and died in the time since I left school.

(Military trumpet sounds)

Of course the number of American military deaths in Iraq pales in comparison to the number of Iraqi civilians lives the conflict has cost; with estimates ranging anywhere from fewer than 100,000 to more than one million.

American military attitudes to Iraqis can also be markedly different, as I discovered when I caught up with some marines five years after first meeting them in 2003.

(Sounds of gunfire)

GEOFF THOMPSON: When I met Patrick Payne he was just 21 years old and was involved in a shooting incident at the back of a convoy on the night of day Baghdad fell in 2003.

Three civilians were killed.

Payne has since left the marines, become a father and now lives with his parents outside Los Angeles.

He has no regrets.

PATRICK PAYNE: You're happy to live though it. You're happy that, you know, all your training has paid off because you reacted the way that you were supposed to, you handled everything right. And this is kinda like, cool. It's almost rewarding. You know, despite the fact that innocent people ended up dying.

GEOFF THOMPSON: An internal investigation cleared Payne and his fellow marines of any wrongdoing in the killing of the civilians.

Payne revealed to us that before crossing into Iraq he was demoted from lance corporal to private for abusing a subordinate in a so-called "hazing" incident.

That may go some way to explaining Patrick Payne's attitude to the notorious abuse of prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison.

PATRICK PAYNE: It was just some people that were bored. You know they were stuck in a jail guarding people that were locked up in cages, or I should say cells, you know, what else did they have to do? So, they entertained themselves.

GEOFF THOMPSON: But don't you think that the human rights of prisoners are important?

PATRICK PAYNE: There were bags on their heads right? Nobody knew who they were. But then again you're in a war. I mean a lot of your standard rules don't always apply. And maybe they shouldn't have piled them up naked like that, you know. But you know to get court marshalled for it; I think that's extreme.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Marine Captain Steven Thompson has a very different reaction to what happened at Abu Ghraib.

STEVEN THOMPSON: The second I saw them, I was angry, because I thought a US marine will die because of this. And I don't like people doin' dumb stuff to make more people shoot at marines. And that's how I looked at it. And I was furious.

GEOFF THOMPSON: I first met Steven Thompson when he was a colourful and cocky 25-year-old in charge of an artillery battery in 2003.

During his second tour of Iraq as a platoon commander in 2004 he was blown up by a roadside bomb.

STEVEN THOMPSON: I looked down at the radio and I looked back and then boom. Just this huge percussion. I just remember it being black and some smoke. And then I kind of open my eyes and I look over at my right arm and by the time I do blood just kind of (squirting noise); two nice little spurts across my lap and I screamed. It's kind of embarrassing to say now but I screamed. And I was like arrgh… you know.

I tried to get out of the humvee and when I did, I stepped down with my left foot and my shin just buckled underneath me. And as I rolled over, I kind of looked down at my leg and it's got this smoke coming out of it.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Thompson was medivaced out of Iraq and to eventually to the United States where he spent seven months in hospital.

STEVEN THOMPSON: They put a titanium rod and four screws in my shin and in my arm. Like cut the lat muscle out, flipped it upside down and stuffed it into my arm. Bit of a Frankenstein procedure quite frankly, but it works so I got no complaints.

GEOFF THOMPSON: A year after leaving hospital Steven Thompson qualified for flight school and is now back in Iraq, flying Cobra attack helicopters. And he expects marines like him to still be in Iraq in another five years.

STEVEN THOMPSON: Once they start accepting each other a little more, I think we can hand it over. But I still think, until the in-fighting goes away, I think it's going to be hard to do.

(Trumpet plays)

MARK COLVIN: US marine Steven Thompson ending Geoff Thompson's report.

And you can see Geoff's film on Foreign Correspondent on ABC Television this evening.