He is the kind of Marine officer who seems to come off the assembly line, so patriotic that he rejoined the Corps after September 11 and went to Iraq to kill terrorists.
That is why it is so hard for 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano and his family to understand how the Marine Corps could call the platoon leader a murderer. He escaped death in Iraq despite daily patrols and raids in the notorious Sunni Triangle.
Back home at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Lt. Pantano, 33, found out the Corps has filed two premeditated murder charges for shooting two Iraqi insurgents in a dusty, terrorist-infested town near Baghdad. If convicted at a court-martial, he would face the death penalty.
“He is a young, intelligent, charismatic Marine officer and all that that entails,” states his mother, Merry K. Gregory Pantano, a New York literary agent, on a Web site she created to raise defense funds. “And yet he is incomprehensibly charged with heinous crimes related to a dangerous military operation that took place in ‘the triangle of death.’ ”
To Lt. Pantano, the two Iraqis who came toward him despite his order in Arabic to stop were mortal enemies. Booby-trapped suicide bombers are killing Iraqis by the score and some have even feigned surrender in order to get close to U.S. soldiers. But the Corps views it as murder and filed charges against him Feb. 1.
The case, announced at Camp Lejeune last week, is already driving passions among Marines who know that a split-second delay in defending oneself can result in death.
“Let’s stand together and tell our government that it cannot send our boys to the depths of hell and not expect them to see fire and brimstone,” said an e-mailer to Mrs. Pantano’s site, DefendtheDefenders.org. “It’s called war. Sad, dark, horrible, tragic and, in death, permanent.”
Lt. Pantano has retained Charles Gittins, a Marine reserve officer and one of the country’s most prominent military defense attorneys.
Mr. Gittins said his client reported the shootings to superiors and remained in combat for weeks afterward. It was not until an enlisted man, whom Mr. Gittins described as “disgruntled” after being relieved from two jobs, complained to commanders that an investigation began.
“Lt. Pantano told everyone who needed to know,” Mr. Gittins said. “He told them what he did and why he did it. After that, he served three months in combat. Nobody had any problem with it.”
The Corps has presented Lt. Pantano with a document known as a “charge sheet” that officially charges him with two counts of murder.
Despite this, a Marine spokesman at Camp Lejeune said the officer had not yet been accused.
Mr. Gittins on Saturday sent a letter to the base’s commanding general demanding that he fire the public affairs officer for putting out erroneous information.
Lt. Pantano, raised in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, had already served his country as an enlisted Marine when al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center. He eventually rejoined, graduating from officer training at Quantico, Va., and earning a commission.
The married father of two sons took a hefty pay cut, going from the $100,000 salary of a New York stock broker and TV producer, to the pay of a Marine second lieutenant.