- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

Justice prevailed yesterday for Marine Corps 2nd. Lt. Ilario Pantano and for servicemen everywhere. By dropping spurious murder charges against the former Wall Street trader, the Marine Corps affirms that lawyers and bureaucrats back home cannot second-guess life-or-death decisions made in the heat of battle.

There is little doubt Lt. Pantano made just such a decision on April 15, 2004, during one of the worst months of the Iraq insurgency. While raiding a house full of weapons south of Baghdad, Lt. Pantano and his men found two suspected terrorists who tried to flee in an SUV. Lt. Pantano shot out the vehicle’s tires and forced the suspects to search for bombs and hidden compartments. Moments later, the suspects turned as if to rush Lt. Pantano and ignored his orders to stop. So he killed them. At a time when terrorists were blowing up American soldiers with improvised explosive devices and booby-trapping carcasses on the road, Lt. Pantano acted to protect his men. He didn’t help his case by emptying two M-16 clips into the suspected terrorists and leaving a sign on their corpses bearing a Marine Corps slogan, reportedly to send a message. But the danger and uncertainty of the situation were clear. “We’re parked in a kill box right now,” Lt. Pantano recalled telling his squad. “It’s a miracle that we’re not all in a bag right now.”

The decision yesterday by Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, commander of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, N.C., to throw out the charges comes after mounting evidence the last two months that Lt. Pantano acted within the rules of engagement. Over a half-dozen Marines testified about Lt. Pantano’s abilities at a hearing in April.

Lt. Pantano could have faced the death penalty. Yesterday’s decision sends all the right signals to servicemen who feared that authorities back home might second-guess justifiable decisions in the battlefield. “Down at the unit level, there was never a question about Ilario’s conduct and whether or not he did the right thing,” the lieutenant’s lawyer, Charles Gittins, told the Associated Press yesterday. “It was up in the higher echelons. The people removed from combat situations needed to put more trust in their officers rather than assuming they’re guilty.” Indeed.

Lt. Pantano will face administrative punishment for desecrating the corpses. We hope that he will return to his combat unit now that he has been cleared of criminal wrondoing.

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