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500-mile trek ends peacefully for soldier

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ST. GEORGE — The final leg of Marshall Thompson's trek across Utah ended quietly Wednesday, exactly 27 days after he began walking to gather support for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

"The first day I started this walk was amazing, there was so much goodwill," said Thompson, a 28-year-old sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve who has served several tours of duty, including a recent stint in Iraq. "The only thing that dampened that day was my own thought of whether I could do it."

Thompson, who started his walk on Oct. 2 near Franklin, Idaho, spent time Wednesday at Vernon Worthen Park in St. George with a gathering of about 50 interested bystanders, veterans, schoolchildren and other peace walkers.

"I wanted to be here," said Zoe Gregoric, one of six students from a private middle school in Springdale who attended Wednesday's ceremony. "It's for a really good cause."

Several hundred black military boots were lined up on the grass near the park's gazebo, along with dozens of children's shoes. The footwear represented Iraqi children and American service men and women killed in Iraq during October.

A total of 105 American service members died in Iraq in October, the fourth deadliest month since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to the Associated Press. October also recorded more Iraqi civilian deaths — 1,170 as of Monday — than any other month since the AP began keeping track in May 2005.

As of Wednesday, the AP reported that at least 2,817 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the war, including 18 military members from Utah. According to a Defense Department tally, 21,419 U.S. service members have been wounded in Iraq.

"It's really sad to see the children's shoes," said Gregoric, a 12-year-old who also walked with Thompson for a few miles on Tuesday as he hiked through the eastern edge of Washington County.

Walking 500 miles across Utah wasn't as hard as he thought it would be, said Thompson, who was joined by his wife, Kristen, and baby, Eliza, during the trip as they followed in a motor home. At one point, a swollen nodule on Eliza's neck caused the couple grave concern and almost made Thompson abandon the trek. Doctors now say the lump is not cancerous, he said.

"One really unexpected thing that happened during this hike was I lost all symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome," he said. "Ever since I've been on the walk, I've slept like a baby, and I haven't been angry. It's been a wonderful gift. I can't wait to sleep in tomorrow, though, and just play with my daughter."

The idea for the walk started during a church service just before Thompson left Iraq in August. Soldiers were being recognized for completing their deployment when someone stood up and said, "When you go home, don't forget about us," Thompson has said. Thompson decided he had to do something, and he opted for the walk.

Thompson said people of differing viewpoints joined him throughout the month-long trek. Discussions about the American role in the Middle East and how the United States can develop a responsible plan for withdrawal from Iraq were constant topics, he said.

"The traditional impression was that this war had something to do with Sept. 11," he said. "It does not. Once the emotions are ramped down, I find people are more willing to listen."

Thompson recalled one day meeting a construction worker as he walked through the small town of Glendale. Even after days of walking with no real confrontations, Thompson worried about the man in front of him.

"I thought, 'This is it, this is where it happens.' But this guy just looked at me and said I was doing the right thing," said Thompson. "He wants this war to stop before his kids are old enough to go, too. I think the tide has changed. Only two people during this whole trip have come out with opposing viewpoints."

Thompson, who said he's now looking for a "real job," is keeping an online journal and blog about his walk on his Web site, www.asoldierspeace.com.

E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com