Cpl. Trent Thomas told a judge he believes he acted with lawful authority.
Like most people, I was horrified and disappointed when I heard that U.S. troops had been accused of murdering innocent Iraqis in Haditha and Hamdania.
But as a journalist I wanted to know more. I wanted to know what would drive soldiers to commit these types of acts. I wanted to know more about the psychological conditions under which they operated.
I found Cpl. Trent Thomas' story particularly intriguing. Thomas grew up in a rough neighborhood in East St. Louis and by all accounts is a man who beat the odds. He didn't turn to drugs or violence; instead, he says he turned to his faith and church and family. Joining the Marines was something he always wanted to do.
On April 26th of last year, Thomas and other members of his squad were searching for an insurgent in Hamdania, Iraq. Frustrated at being unable to find him, they went to his next door neighbor's home, 52-yeard Hashim Ibrahim Awad, lured him out his house, then shot and killed him on the street. But Awad, the father of 11 children, was not an insurgent.
The squad then tried to cover up Awad's murder to make it look like he was an insurgent planting a bomb.
Thomas initially pleaded guilty to taking part in the murder, admitting he shot Awad several times. When I met with Thomas at Camp Pendleton last Tuesday, he was in custody, awaiting sentencing. We talked about why a man who calls himself a Christian and a good Marine would murder. (Hear Cpl. Thomas' take on how war dehumanizes people
After talking to Thomas for just a few minutes, I could see how conflicted he was. Thomas said he was sorry for what he had done to Awad. But I still got the sense that his entire experience in Iraq hadn't really sunk in.
Thomas served three tours in Iraq. He had seen his best friend killed. He told me he would wake up each day and never know if he would survive to see the next one. He said battle fatigue and a general sense of frustration at not being able to stop insurgents played a role in Awad's killing.
I asked Thomas if he was following orders the day his squad killed Awad. He wouldn't directly answer and appeared to be holding something back.
After the interview I had a private conversation with Thomas' attorney. At the time, it was off the record. Following the talk with the attorney, I knew Thomas felt he was following orders that day.
One day after our interview, Thomas changed his plea to "not guilty." His lawyer then said publicly that Thomas withdrew the guilty plea because he believed he was doing what he was told to do. The case, which had been in the sentencing phase, will now start over.
Regardless of how the legal case proceeds from here, Thomas still has to come to terms with being a Christian, a Marine, and a man who has killed.