- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 27, 2005

Ilario Pantano was making a six-figure income as an energy trader with Goldman Sachs in New York when the World Trade Center was attacked. Lt. Pantano had friends who worked in the Twin Towers and friends among the firefighters who perished trying to save them.

This Marine veteran, who had already served in the first Gulf war, set aside his career (which also included work in film and television), kissed his wife and two children goodbye, and headed to Quantico, Va., for officer training school.

A Marine colleague asked, “How many guys do you know [who] would drop 100 grand a year to go sleep in fighting holes in the nasty mud and dust for — what — 25 grand a year?”

There are a few — and the rest of us owe them more than we can possibly express — which is why it is shocking to learn 2nd Lt. Pantano may now face murder charges.

In April 2004, American and Iraqi troops were under constant terrorist attack in the Sunni Triangle. Hundreds were being killed and wounded. Weapons of choice for the insurgents included roadside bombs, booby-trapped vehicles and animals, combatants disguised as women and suicide attackers feigning surrender before blowing themselves up.

The Washington Times reports that on April 15, 2004, “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 [Iraqis] 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.” (Presumably so any booby traps would not kill U.S. Marines.)

After a few minutes, the two suspected insurgents stopped searching and began moving quickly toward Lt. Pantano. Lt. Pantano’s lawyer explained “they started talking in Arabic and turned toward him as if they were going to rush him.” Lt. Pantano shouted at them in Arabic to stop. They did not. He shot and killed both of them. He then placed a sign on the SUV repeating the slogan of Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, “No better friend; No worse Enemy.”

Investigation later revealed the vehicle held no explosives or weapons. By this time, Lt. Pantano had participated in the battle of Fallujah. A superior evaluated him: “accomplished infantry leader. His actions during the fighting in Fallujah and Al Zaidon highlighted a solid understanding of tactics and an ability to anticipate the enemy. Leads from the front always and balances his aggressive style with true concern for the welfare of his Marines. Exceptional communication skills for a second lieutenant. Organized, aggressive, focused and driven. Ready for increased responsibility. Retain, promote, and assign to challenging assignments.”

Except he now waits in Camp Lejeune, N.C., while the Marine Corps considers whether to indict him for murder of those Iraqi SUV drivers — charges that could carry a death sentence. He has also been advised he may face charges of “desecration” for placing the sign on the SUV. A Marine Corps spokesman estimated a decision on whether Lt. Pantano faces a general court-martial will be forthcoming in late March or early April.

Obviously, the United States cannot turn a blind eye to war crimes. If a soldier lines up civilians in front of a pit, My Lai-style, and massacres them, he would richly deserve (and every self-respecting American would demand) a court-martial. But good Lord, how can the SUV event be called murder?

Lt. Pantano was in the midst of a war zone, not a vacation in the Riviera. He had been dodging ambushes and booby traps for weeks. He had seen his comrades killed and maimed. Perhaps he acted too hastily in shooting those Iraqis. But a murder charge? Has the Marine Corps gone P.C.?

Lt. Pantano’s parents have created a Web site for those who would like to help their son and others like him. “DefendtheDefenders.org stands behind the man who puts his life on the line again and again, who makes life or death decisions in the blazing heat, exhaustion, fear and confusion of war while conducting combat operations … [and later] becomes the subject … of formal charges.”

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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