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].’”
Gittens concurred. “I think they did the autopsies to implicate Ilario because we had blown up the hearing. The purpose of the autopsies was to get inculpatory evidence, not exculpatory evidence” (italic mine). Two days after the report was submitted to the Pentagon, Huck announced that all charges were being dropped, citing the autopsy as evidence.
None of it mattered to leftists determined to get Mr. Pantano. The charge, rather than the verdict, became fodder for several stories. Just prior to the charges being dropped, _New York Magazine_ ran a story on May 21, 2005, wondering whether or not the “Manhattan preppy…with a handsome face, angled like a cat’s, and a soldier’s telltale crew cut,” was a murderer.
When Pantano resigned his commission, moved to North Carolina and ran for Congress in 2010, the stories became less speculative and more accusatory. Salon magazine ran a piece titled “From accused murderer to member of Congress?” wondering if a man who “killed two unarmed Iraqis and embraces Islamophbia could wind up in Congress.” _The Daily Beast_ ran a story on “Jack Bauer Republicans” and referred to Pantano as one of two “renegade soldiers” running for office. Part of that story included comments by Pantano’s defeated primary opponent, Will Breazeale, who contended “there’s no excuse for what [Pantano] did.“ Breazeale promised to do everything he could to assure Pantano’s defeat. The North Carolina Democratic Party (NCDP) paid for a website that ran articles accusing Pantano of “changing his story,” claiming his version of the incident “is not one of self-defense,” and contending that “future Marine Corpsmen have noticed Pantano and are learning what NOT to do.”
Pantano lost the election. And his story might have ended then were it not for one man: William Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been bothered by the “rush to judgment” in the case and convinced the Marines to exhume the bodies five years later. “I informed the NCIS agent and others in the office that the remains of the two deceased Iraqis should be exhumed and examined, as that is the only way one can scientifically prove what happened.”
In late November, Rodriguez did just that. He proved the two men had been shot from the front, not the back. Furthermore, he went public with his criticism of the Marine Corps and Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). “In a case like this, if I was charged with something, I would insist that the forensic evidence be looked at before I would be found guilty,” Rodriguez told the Washington Times. “They were looking at really going after him, making an example of him.”
He then added a sentence that ought to give pause to anyone willing to render judgment in this case, or any other combat incident–while sitting safely in front of a computer. “People were kind of second-guessing the soldier in the field in a wartime situation. That to me, personally, upset me for people try to second-guess a soldier who’s in the field facing danger every day, not knowing who is their friend or foe.”
Pantano, whose memoir, “Warlord: Broken by War, Saved by Grace,” is currently being re-released in paperback, plans to run for Congress again in 2012. As he explained in an interview on Fox News, “I was on the ground in Fallujah when it was a bloodbath. Your audience remembers contractors hanging from a bridge.” Regarding the specific incident, he remained firm. “I was defending myself…but without autopsy evidence there was no way to know for sure..the doctor who did the autopsies…has come forward to say this should never have happened and that I was an innocent man.”
Now the whole world knows. It remains to be seen whether those so quick to render judgment against Iliaro Pantano will be willing to offer their apologies to a war hero who has now been vindicated–for the second time.
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