Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano could face the death penalty if convicted of charges made against him last week. The charges? Premeditated murder. The facts? He shot two suspected terrorists during a mission in Iraq. The case is frought with second-guessing, and could be a disaster for future combat operations if the charges aren’t dropped.

April 2004 was the cruelest month in the Iraq insurgency. It was when the assault on Fallujah took place, as did significant action in Najaf and Sadr City. About one-third of the 147 U.S. servicemen killed that month were Marines. They were killed in firefights and ambushes, and risked explosive devices in the streets ” the kind of attacks that require split-second decisions to survive.

Lt. Pantano was in precisely such a situation south of Baghdad on April 15. He was leading a quick-reaction platoon raiding a house full of weapons. Two suspected terrorists had emerged from the house, got into an SUV and tried to flee. The lieutenant and his comrades shot out the SUV’s tires and made the suspects search the vehicle. When the suspects unexpectedly turned toward Lt. Pantano as if to rush him, Lt. Pantano ordered them in Arabic to stop. They didn’t. So Lt. Pantano made a split-second decision to preserve his life and those of his men. It turned out the two suspects were unarmed. Lt. Pantano reported the incident to his superiors, who investigated it and accepted his version of the story. He then served several more months with distinction.

Why, then, is he being charged with murder? There’s seemingly no good answer.

Lt. Pantano is straight out of some romanticized war story. The 33-year-old Hell’s Kitchen native left a six-figure salary in New York to serve his country. His mother says of him, “If he has a fault, it is that he is too idealistic and puts moral responsibility and duty to his country and his men before anything else.” For that, Lt. Pantano faces criminal charges that could result in death.

At a time when the military is being stretched, the Pantano case sends all the wrong signals to servicemen. Finding a few good men will only get harder and harder if overzealous lawyers are permitted to intimidate the troops. In any army, that’s a losing formula.

Unless it can be shown that Lt. Pantano isn’t an exemplary Marine ” that is, if new facts come to light showing he and his superiors are misrepresenting what happened on April 15 ” we call on the Pentagon to drop the spurious charges against Lt. Pantano. As far as any outsider can tell, he acted in good faith in a life-threatening situation. He shouldn’t be punished for it.

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