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.
“If he has a fault,” says his mother on the site, “it is that he is too idealistic and puts moral responsibility and duty to his country and his men before anything else.”
Lt. Pantano arrived in Iraq in March 2004, leading a quick-reaction platoon, the kind of unit that is crucial to the U.S. military in its battle against insurgents. Such units receive intelligence reports on hide-outs and arms caches, and must move quickly before the enemy can escape.
“He was in combat every day,” Mr. Gittins said. “They were taking serious casualties. In the three weeks before [the shootings] happened, there were over 1,000 [dead and wounded] in his area of operation.”
On April 15, commanders dispatched Lt. Pantano’s men to a house believed to hold insurgents and weapons. The Marines found bomb-making equipment and were removing it when two Iraqis tried to speed away in a sport utility vehicle, according to Lt. Pantano’s account.
The Marines stopped the SUV by shooting out the tires, apprehended the two and placed them in flexible handcuffs. After setting up a security perimeter, Lt. Pantano took off the cuffs and had the two search the vehicle as he supervised. If it was booby-trapped, the Iraqis, not Marines, would pay the price.
It was at this point that the Iraqis stopped searching and moved quickly toward Lt. Pantano.
“They start talking in Arabic and turn toward him as if they are going to rush him,” Mr. Gittins said. “He says, ‘stop.’ They don’t stop and he kills them. He didn’t know what they were doing but they weren’t listening to him. He was in fear of his life and he killed them.”
The lawyer said it turned out that the men were unarmed and there were no weapons in the SUV.
“They were from a town that was really bad in terms of the insurgency,” he said.
Marine Corps prosecutors added two other charges that seem to Lt. Pantano’s supporters to be piling on. The Corps charged him with destruction of property for slashing the vehicle tires so they could not be repaired.
And, Mr. Gittins said, he was charged with desecration for posting a sign in English on the SUV that said, “No better friend. No worse enemy” — the slogan for the Iraq war of the 1st Marine Division’s commander, Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis.
Gen. Mattis got in hot water earlier this month when he said at a conference that “it’s fun to shoot some people,” referring to Islamic militants.