Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Marine Corps 1st Lt. Ilario Pantano says he demoted the sergeant who is expected to be the chief witness against the officer, who is charged with murdering two Iraqi insurgents.

Lt. Pantano’s attorney, Charles Gittins, has labeled Sgt. Daniel L. Coburn a “disgruntled” Marine who had a motive for falsely accusing his client.

In his first newspaper interview, Lt. Pantano said he fired Sgt. Coburn as a squad leader after the sergeant made an “unforgivable” mistake last year by failing to clear buildings in an old brick factory in Iraq’s Triangle of Death.

“He sat the squad down and they were making Gatoraid and the buildings around us are not cleared,” Lt. Pantano said. “I literally became furious. I took control of his squad. He had just bottomed out. That was a mistake that was just unforgivable.”

About 10 days later, at dusk on April 15, Sgt. Coburn was Lt. Pantano’s radioman when the platoon raided a house used by insurgents to make deadly improvised explosive devices. The platoon captured two fleeing Iraqis. As Lt. Pantano forced the Iraqis to search what could have been a booby-trapped car, the two moved toward him, he says. Lt. Pantano emptied two M-16 magazines into the Iraqis in a matter of seconds, but it turned out they were unarmed.

Sgt. Coburn complained within the battalion and persuaded a corporal to lodge a complaint in June. The Naval Investigative Service then started a probe of the incident. On Feb. 1, the Marines charged Lt. Pantano with two counts of premeditated murder. The 33-year-old married father of two faces the death penalty if convicted at court-martial. The Corps will conduct a pretrial investigative hearing in late April at Lt. Pantano’s home base of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

2nd Lt. Barry Edwards, a Camp Lejeune spokesman, declined to discuss Sgt. Coburn’s role or to submit questions to the 10-year enlisted man.

Sgt. Coburn was quoted in the New York Daily News on March 7 as saying “I never had a grudge against” Lt. Pantano.

Lt. Pantano said several witnesses will verify that he had to counsel Sgt. Coburn for other problems and that he fired him 10 days before the shooting.

Told that Sgt. Coburn said he “never had a grudge,” Lt. Pantano said, “I think that’s very interesting based on the fact he knows his career has been ended.”

Lt. Pantano’s case has become a cause celebre for some conservative commentators and pro-military groups. He enlisted in the Marines as a private rather than going to college and had “USMC” tattooed on his arm. He fought as a sniper in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, then went to school and worked on Wall Street.

After two al Qaeda-hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Lt. Pantano gave up a TV production company and talked his way back into the Corps.

Molded at infantry officer school in Quantico, Va., he arrived at Camp Lejeune in January 2004. Two months later, he led a 40-Marine platoon as part of Easy Company, 2nd Marine Division.

The Triangle of Death zone south of Baghdad was a caldron of chaos and violence. “Units were getting ambushed all over the place, including my own,” Lt. Pantano said.

On his decision to fire, he said, “I was in fear of my life.”

Lt. Pantano continued to lead missions until June, when Sgt. Coburn’s complaint triggered the probe.

“I looked at my Marines as if I’m their father,” he said. “We were very, very aggressive because I was not going to let anything happen to my sons. They fought hard for me. They fought like lions. None of my Marines was killed. That was my greatest accomplishment.”

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