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Seven long years after he allegedly committed “premeditated murder,” Iraq war veteran Ilario Pantano, who gave up a comfortable life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to fight for his country following the September 11th attacks, has been thoroughly vindicated. Thus ends a saga highlighted by an unconscionable rush to judgement by the military, and the subsequent trashing of Mr. Pantano’s reputation by leftists who never miss an opportunity to denigrate American soldiers based on nothing more than unproven allegations.
By any reasonable measure, Mr. Pantano is an American patriot. A man born to poverty in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Pantano managed to win a partial scholarship to Horace Mann, one of the top private schools in the nation. Students from Horace Mann routinely qualify to attend some of the best colleges in the nation and Pantano was no exception. Yet he made himself an exception, putting off college to join the Marines to fight in the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.
After that tour of duty he returned home, finished college at nights, and ended up working for Goldman Sachs. Thus we have someone who had served his country, re-entered civilian life and made himself successful. For most men, a tour of duty in a combat zone followed by the procurement of a good job and a promising future would have been more than enough reason to let “someone else” fight for this nation following the 9/11 atrocity. Ilario Pantano is made of sterner stuff. At age 31 he persuaded the Marines to take him back so he could once again take the fight to Islamic terrorists.
It was a fateful decision. In 2004, Lieutenant Pantano was leading his squad through an area known as the “Triangle of Death,” a Sunni-insurgent dominated region where some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraq war was taking place. It was there that Pantano stopped two Iraqis who were driving a car away from what was discovered to be a terrorist ammo dump. When he ordered them to search their own car in case it was booby-trapped, the two men rushed Pantano. He opened fire, killing both. He reloaded his magazine and fired again, after which he hung a sign on the dead bodies saying “no better friend, no worse enemy.” It was intended as a message for other terrorists–according to both the prosecutor and Pantano who admitted to it. The sign was removed after one of his men told Pantano it was inappropriate.
Daniel Coburn, a disgruntled sergeant who had been disciplined by Pantano and subsequently demoted within the platoon, accused Pantano of shooting the men in the back. Despite the fact that all other testimony contradicted that claim, the Judge Advocate General’s investigating officer chose to believe Coburn and charge Pantano with premeditated murder.
On May 12, 2005, the case began to fall apart. A Marine hearing officer, Lt. Col. Mark E. Win, recommended to Maj. Gen. Richard Huck that the charges be dropped and not proceed to court-martial. This decision was largely based on the fact that Coburn had made several contradictory statements. Win still recommended punishment for the sign, but Huck rejected it.
Incredibly, despite the conflicting versions of the incident related during the Article 32 hearing (the military version of a preliminary hearing in civilian law), no autopsy reports were ever submitted into evidence. According to Pantano’s civilian lawyer, Charles Gittens, it was too dangerous for Navy investigators to try to exhume the bodies. Yet after the hearing, an “embarrassed” high command got permission from the dead men’s wives and local villagers to dig up the remains.
Forensic anthropologist William C. Rodriguez was brought in on May 24, 2005 to examine the bodies. “When the remains arrived, I didn’t expect the large crowds of people to [be] present at the mortuary” said Rodriguez. “Most were NCIS agents and various representatives of the Marines. Prior to the exams, there was much discussion concerning the case, talk of court-martial, prosecution and being guilty. The image that came to my mind…was that of a lynch mob: ‘Let’s make an example of [Pantano].’”
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