Marine Second Lieutenant Ilario Pantano, 33 years old, first served his country in the 1991 Gulf War.
After the Manhattan native lost friends in the September 11 terrorist attacks, Pantano, by then a married father of two sons, quit his job as a highly-paid Goldman, Sachs stockbroker and re-joined the Marines. He completed officers' training school, received a commission, and became a platoon leader with the Second Marine Division, landing in Iraq last March and cheating death in the battle of Fallujah.
Unlike some of his fellow Marines, Lt. Pantano made it safely back home.
But now, the Marines are forcing him to cheat death again.
On February 1, the Marine Corps he loves charged him with double murder for shooting two Iraqi insurgents who put him in fear for his life during a dangerous security mission. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
On April 15, 2004, Lt. Pantano's men were ordered to search a suspected insurgent hideout. Inside the building, they found weapons, ammunition, and bomb-making materials. Then, a sport-utility vehicle pulled away from the site.
Pantano's Marines shot out the SUV's tires and took the two Iraqi men inside into custody. Since the insurgents often rigged vehicles with bombs, Pantano ordered the Iraqis to search it thoroughly for booby traps.
But in the midst of stripping the vehicle's interior, the Iraqis stopped, turned toward Pantano, and began walking toward him.
Pantano ordered them to stop, in Arabic, but they kept advancing. He shot them both dead.
A precise, disciplined Marine, Pantano made all the necessary reports to his superiors concerning the shooting. None of them had a problem with his actions. He served for three more months in Iraq, and returned home a hero.
So how did he end up charged with murder?
His lawyer, Marine reserve officer Charles Gittins, claims the Marine who first accused Pantano is a disgruntled sergeant who may be upset at Pantano for some perceived slight. But whatever petty motive lies behind the allegations, it's difficult to see why the Corps itself lent them any credibility.
Pantano's situation is tragic not just because his valiant service is being rewarded with a potential court-martial, but because it will lead all our troops, in Iraq and elsewhere, to second-guess themselves. And if the fear of ending up in Pantano's position causes them to hesitate an extra second before pulling the trigger, some of them will die.
Pantano's family has set up a site with information about his situation, www.defendthedefenders.org, but at present, it appears to have exceeded its bandwith allocation. I expect they'll have it up again soon.
Meanwhile, World Net Daily commentator Joseph Farah offers a suggestion to the Marines on how to resolve Pantano's case:
Drop the charges now. Fire the overzealous persecutor. Apologize to Lt. Pantano and grant him a medal for his distinguished and courageous service to his country.That would be a good start, followed up by disciplining the Sergeant who made the allegations of criminal conduct, as well as the officers who decided to act on them. And sending a clear message to our troops that their commanders won't second-guess decisions made in the heat of battle. (After all, if British homeowners can be trusted to know when to pull the trigger, surely our fighting men and women can as well.)
But rather than drop the case, Marine Corps prosecutors are, bizzarrely, adding additional charges that, the Washington Times says, Pantano's supporters describe as "piling on": destruction of property, for slashing the vehicle tires so they could not be repaired, and desecration, for posting a sign in English on the SUV with the Marine Corps slogan, "No better friend. No worse enemy".
It's not clear why the Marines are treating Pantano as an enemy. But it's time they stopped.
A number of people have pointed out to me that "we don't have all the facts" on Pantano's case yet.
That may be so. It's theoretically possible that a Gulf War veteran who voluntarily re-joined the military suddenly snapped, shot two men in cold blood, and then went about being an outstanding Marine for three more months before leaving Iraq.
But I haven't seen any evidence to suggest that's what happened. All we have is an allegation of murder, as yet unsubstantiated by any corroborating evidence, brought by a Marine who may have had a grudge against Pantano.
I'm planning to stay on top of this story, and if new facts emerge, I'll consider them in due course. But right now, the murder charge seems baseless, and the Marine Corps has not, to my knowledge, released or claimed to have any information that would make it less so.