Pantano case has parallels to Hamdania incident
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    Exclamation Pantano case has parallels to Hamdania incident

    Pantano case has parallels to Hamdania incident
    By: MARK WALKER - Staff Writer
    North County Times
    July 1, 2006

    Ilario Pantano, a former Marine accused and later exonerated of two counts of premeditated murder in Iraq in 2004, has a message for the eight Camp Pendleton servicemen now facing a similar accusation.

    "Keep the faith," said Pantano, who chronicles his experiences in a new book titled, "Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy."

    "You need to keep the faith in each other and in the Marine Corps," he said.

    The story of Pantano and the eight servicemen accused in the April 26 kidnapping and killing of an Iraqi man in the village of Hamdania west of Baghdad has some striking parallels.

    Like the Hamdania Eight, as the Camp Pendleton group is being referred to by some supporters, Pantano was accused of premeditated murder resulting from combat action in an area of Iraq known for insurgent activity.

    Like the Hamdania Eight, Pantano was the target of a probe conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and eventually the subject of an Article 32 hearing to determine whether the charge would stand.

    And like the Hamdania Eight, Pantano's family and others rallied to his defense almost immediately, hiring private, civilian attorneys to assist in his defense and creating Web sites to solicit money to help pay legal fees.

    "If these guys are found guilty, then they should be punished," Pantano said in a telephone interview from New York City last week. "But I absolutely believe these guys are innocent until proven guilty and deserve every benefit of the doubt."

    He said he would still be "in this fight" in Iraq if not for the charges that were filed against him. After the charges against him were dismissed, Pantano opted to resign from the Marine Corps and was given an honorable discharge last August.

    "I was a platoon commander who killed men in combat and I don't have one regret about it," he said, adding that his book gives him a chance to identify the shortcomings he believes exist in some of the U.S. military policies and procedures in Iraq.

    "Now I have the honor of trying to speak for men and women who can't speak for themselves," he said.

    The son of an Italian immigrant father, Pantano was born and raised in New York City and joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school. He saw action during the first Gulf War and left the service as a sergeant in 1993.

    Pantano, now 34, rejoined the Marines shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001, leaving behind a successful career as an energy trader and movie producer. He attended Officer Candidate School and reached the rank of second lieutenant.

    Assigned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., Pantano was sent to Iraq in early 2004 with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment and was a platoon leader.

    Two months later, he found himself in the city of Fallujah, and on April 15, 2004, was assigned to attack a suspected insurgent stronghold in the nearby town of Mahmudiyah.

    During that patrol, his unit encountered two suspected insurgents in a car, ordered the pair out and began a search, according to the book and accounts from troops under his command. A nearby building that was said to house insurgents was empty, but his Marines found a variety of weapons, he said.

    At that point, Pantano said, he ordered the two men from the car to perform the search, suspecting that if it contained munitions set to explode, they would become the victims.

    When the men engaged in what Pantano said were threatening actions, the Marine shot, emptying his first ammunition magazine and then reloading and emptying a second, he recounted.

    To send what he said was a message to the insurgency, Pantano then put a sign over the bodies repeating the slogan of Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who helped lead the invasion of Iraq.

    The sign read, "No better friend, no worse enemy," a marker that was removed after one of his men told Pantano it was inappropriate.

    Two months later, Pantano said, he was on another patrol when he was ordered to return to the Marine stronghold of Camp Fallujah, where he was informed that a Naval Criminal Investigative Service probe had been launched into an allegation from a sergeant in his unit that Pantano had shot the two men in the back without provocation.

    Unlike the men from the Hamdania incident, who are accused of kidnapping and killing an Iraqi civilian, Pantano says, he was kept in Iraq but his duties were restricted. The Marines and corpsman in the Hamdania case were initially detained in Iraq and then returned to Camp Pendleton in early May and placed in the brig, where they remain today.

    In his book, Pantano tells his story in a staccato fashion, alternating between his experiences in 2004 in Iraq and the verbatim testimony of his Article 32 hearing conducted over five days last April at Camp Lejeune, N.C. That hearing would decide whether the murder charges against him would go forward.

    Pantano writes in his book, which was released June 10, of how he felt as the investigation was under way and before he returned with the II Marine Expeditionary Force to Camp Lejeune in early 2005:

    "Every morning, I'd woken with nausea and anxiety. Every night, I went to bed wondering if the next day I would be ordered to lead my men in combat again in Fallujah, or be led away in cuffs and leg chains. While my brothers were fighting just to stay alive in Iraq, I was fighting my own fear of tomorrow. And all that just for trying to keep my men alive. The war had been surreal even before the investigation, but afterward, it became a Kafkaesque nightmare."

    Article 32 hearing

    During the hearing that would ultimately lead to Pantano's exoneration, a hearing that is the next step in the military judicial process for the men accused in the Hamdania incident, the sergeant who filed the complaint against him was shown to have made contradictory statements.

    The statements resulted in the sergeant's being threatened with charges and ultimately being granted immunity from prosecution, according to Pantano's book.

    At the conclusion of the five-day hearing, the officer who presided over the sessions, Lt. Col. Mark E. Win, recommended to Maj. Gen. Richard Huck that the charges be dropped and not proceed to court-martial.

    Win had concluded that the sergeant was not a reliable witness. Bolstering Pantano's defense were autopsy reports on the two slain Iraqis that showed they had not been shot in the back. Huck concurred.

    Win did recommend a nonjudicial punishment for Pantano for conduct unbecoming an officer for the sign left over the bodies, but Huck ultimately rejected that recommendation.

    Having both civilian and military attorneys proved crucial in winning his case, Pantano said.

    "The civilian attorneys are important because the prosecution is the one that gets to make all the statements for weeks or months leading up to an Article 32 hearing," he said.

    Marine defense attorneys generally will not comment on a pending case, but their civilian attorneys generally will.

    Phil Stackhouse, who in early June retired from the Marine Corps as a major following a 21-year career, was one of Pantano's assigned military attorneys.

    Stackhouse said in a telephone interview last week that there are many similarities in the case of Pantano and the Hamdania defendants.

    In both incidents, there was significant time between when the dead were buried and when their bodies were exhumed for autopsy and forensic examination. In each case, the incidents took place in a war zone and resulted in premeditated murder charges.

    In both cases, a significant group of former Marines and members of the public immediately came to the defense of the accused long before an Article 32 hearing.

    Stackhouse said the initial accusation against Pantano, like the charges in the Hamdania case, look damning at first glance.

    "It looks horrible when it first comes in," he said. "And then you start digging and digging and digging; what often comes out in an Article 32 hearing is a lot different."

    Pantano and Stackhouse suggested the investigation done by NCIS in his case was lacking in several respects.

    "In Pantano's case, I thought it was a terrible investigation," said Stackhouse, who has opened a private practice in Jacksonville, N.C.

    Pantano said he thought it was a "sloppy" job, adding that once the investigation began, he believed there was internal momentum in the Marine Corps and NCIS that resulted in the charges being filed.

    Pantano said accusations that another group of Marines from Camp Pendleton killed 24 unarmed Iraqis in Haditha on Nov. 19, a case that remains under investigation, is damaging for the U.S. and frustrating because of its overtones.

    "We forget words have meaning and words like 'slaughter' and 'cold-blooded murder' being used in that case are upsetting and unfair characterizations when the investigation still isn't complete."

    Those descriptions attached in various media reports create an unfair bias toward those under investigation, he said.

    "These kinds of things will hurt us if it leads to hesitation to shoot," Pantano said. "The kind of hesitation that could have tragic consequences. The flip side of the rules of engagement in combat is the right to self-defense."

    He said the public has to remember that the U.S. military is facing an enemy that is not immediately recognizable and is ingrained in the civilian population.

    "Since April 9, 2003, every bomb that has been planted, every rocket-propelled grenade that has been fired and every rifle shot at a U.S. service member has come from a nonuniformed combatant."

    In the end, however, Pantano said he believes the Marine Corps did what it had to in his case in order to protect its honor.

    "I belonged to a 230-year-old institution made up of men and women that has its flaws but continues to be the best fighting force in the world.

    "People don't join the Marine Corps because they don't want high standards," he said. "If these guys (the Hamdania accused) are found guilty, then Marines will expect they will be punished.

    "Being a Marine means taking responsibility and doing the right thing even when no one is looking."

  2. #2
    Excellent post. My wife and I worked long and hard to promote Pantano's website which his Mom created. WOR Radio in New York , thanks to Ed Walsh, worked feverishly over the airwaves in support of Pantano until he was acquited.
    Pantano still loves the Corps, but what they did to him left a big "lump in his throat". I predicted that he would resign his commission and get on with his life. I've lost track of him, but I assume he's back working in New York . He will go places.

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