Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Prosecution, Persecution, and Resurgence of Lt Ilario Pantano, USMC

There has been a trenchant and determined effort amongst the main stream media to portray the American war effort, and those who fight the battles and skirmishes, in a negative light.  I began to see this during the Viet Nam War with the deliberate conflating of the Romanov-level mismanagement of the war by Lyndon Johnson and his supremely self-confident acolyte Robert Strange McNamara (Johnson’s Cardinal Richelieu) with the heroic efforts, victories and sacrifices of the American fighting men of that war.  That denigrating effort by the Left accelerated with the election of Richard Nixon, who was then condemned for not ending what was quickly dubbed ‘Nixon’s War’, quickly enough.  The American public saw through this blundering attempt at revolution for what it was, and I believe the war effort was extended because of, not in spite of, the reaction of the Silent Majority.

I say that I noticed the trend in the 1960s, but that was when it became apparent to us all.  It actually began when Truman fired MacArthur, and with the partial exception of John F Kennedy, it continues and accelerates up to today, with certainly no evidence of abating.

One such example that I have been following is the morality tale of Second Lieutenant Ilario Pantano, USMC and his controversial encounter with two Iraqi insurgents during the First Battle of Fallujah in April 2004, which led to attempts to charge him with premeditated murder.

It can be said that Pantano is an unusual, larger-than-life individual, and his background befits his persona.  He was born (1971) and raised in New York City, in the Hell’s Kitchen area, but excelled in school and was a bright lad, attending the private Horace Mann School on partial scholarship.  He was popular there, but never really quite fit in: "he was that good guy who always did the right thing", he seemed "instinctually patriotic", he hung an American flag on his wall, he didn't touch marijuana.  Upon graduation, he enlisted in the Marine Corps ("I would venture to say no one has ever enlisted in the Marines in the history of Horace Mann," understates a classmate), trained as a TOW gunner and a Scout Sniper, and served with 6th Marines during the First Gulf War in 1991 as a Sergeant.  [Full disclosure:  I served in 1/6 during the 1970s, and coincidentally my unit was briefly with 6th Marines during that conflict.  I don’t recollect Sgt Pantano, but it was, you know, rather hectic at the time.]

Pantano left the Marines in 1993, graduated New York University, worked for Goldman Sachs for a couple of years, followed by Constellation Power, and then started a film production company.  He married a fashion model.  But Pantano was finding that there is a distinct difference between the culture of his life in New York with the Sophisticati and the camaraderie of the Marines, well illustrated by this brief exchange he had with a friend who was also from the Marines, Jeff Dejessie, at Goldman Sachs:
One day, Dejessie took Pantano aside.  “I really don’t fit in here.  Why do you even bother with me?” he asked.
Pantano told Dejessie, “These people are my friends, they mean something to me, but they’d probably try and take my job in a minute.  I trust you with my life.”
Then the attacks of 11 September 2001 hit Manhattan, where he lived next to a fire station that saw 11 fire fighters killed, including four former Marines.  He knew that he had to return to the Marine Corps, a call that bewildered his New York cosmopolitan wife (as reflected in the story that ran in New York magazine, written by an equally bewildered, New York cosmopolitan writer).  Despite his age then of 31, he obtained a waiver and returned to active duty, for Officer Candidate School.  He graduated at the top of his class and was commissioned, then deployed to Iraq as a platoon leader in Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines; he quickly became known as a dynamic and energetic officer, held in high regard by his fellow officers and his men.

He and his platoon soon found themselves on the outskirts of Fallujah, a city that was steadily becoming a rally point for the new insurgency, at the end of March 2004.  On 31 March, a convoy was ambushed and resulted in the capture, torture, and murder of four US contractors, whose burnt bodies were hanged from a bridge.  The news of the atrocity had a strong impact back in the US, and in less than 24 hours political forces – military and non-military alike – moved the Marine commanders in the area, who had just arrived with their troops to relieve the 82nd Airborne Division, into swift action that many on the scene considered precipitate and ill-advised.  The Marines began a move into the city in order to locate, fix, and destroy the insurgents.

[The operation quickly stalled primarily due to political dithering, and the effort was turned over to ad hoc Iraqi units of questionable quality and loyalty.  This allowed the insurgents to more fully fortify and consolidate their positions inside the city, doubling their numbers.  The city was finally secured after a combined assault by the Marines – supported by two battalions of the Army, Seabees, Iraqi troops, and a battalion of the British Black Watch – the following November in the Second Battle of Fallujah, the bloodiest battle of the war.]

Lt Pantano and his platoon were dispatched on patrol on the morning of 15 April.  The day before, a bridge had been mortared and a nearby house was suspected to contain the insurgents responsible. One of the 13-man squads approached the compound along with Lt Pantano, his radioman Sgt Daniel Coburn, and the platoon Navy Corpsman, HM3 George Gobles.  A car exited the compound and attempted to flee, but it was brought to a halt by Marine rifle fire into the engine.  Pantano approached it with Coburn and Gobles while the squad entered the house to search, after moving the women and children inside to a safe area.  Pantano and his men extracted and bound the two occupants with plastic cuffs, and Gobles did a quick search of the vehicle, finding no contraband or weapons.  The Marines searching the compound, though, found weapons and bomb-making material, and they passed this on to Pantano by radio.  Pantano then had the two captives released from their cuffs so that they could conduct a more thorough search of the vehicles (“pull apart the seats”) under his supervision, because he suspected booby traps (e.g., the seats were not bolted down, a common sign that the car was used to smuggle weapons or other military contraband).  He had Gobles and Coburn stand to the forward and rear of the car to provide security, and they faced outboard in accordance with standard procedure.

Pantano related that within moments, the two captives began talking to each other in low voices.  He told them to be quiet, in Arabic, twice (as Gobles later testified), but they continued to converse.  They then stood up from the car and quickly turned toward him.  Pantano feared that they were attacking him and opened fire.  He emptied his magazine, inserted another, and fired more rounds until he was certain that the two Iraqis were dead.
I then changed magazines and continued to fire until the second magazine was empty.... I had made a decision that when I was firing I was going to send a message to these Iraqis and others that when we say, 'No better friend, No worse enemy,' we mean it.  I had fired both magazines into the men, hitting them with about 80 percent of my rounds.
Pantano quickly reviewed the incident with his Platoon Sergeant, Staff Sergeant Jason Glew, who came running up at the sound of the gunfire.  With the incident wrapped up among the command element, the platoon then continued its patrol as directed and the scene at the car, with the two bodies, was left as it was, except that Pantano left a sign affixed to the windshield for the local populace, quoting again: “No better friend.  No worse enemy.”  This was the unofficial motto of the task force, echoing the Marine commander, then-Major General Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division (now a four-star in command of CENTCOM, and with General Petraeus considered to be an authority on this latest version of counter-insurgency warfare).  It is a motto that Pantano took to heart, emphasizing the former as often as possible, taking seriously the idea of winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqis (“If we can bring some comfort, some democracy, some opportunity, maybe they won’t hate us so much.”), and he would often encourage his men to take every opportunity to get to know and understand the local populace and try to endear themselves to them.  But the brightness of the idea must exist in sharp contrast to the darkness of the retribution against the enemy (“My duty, as is the duty of these other Marines, is quite frankly to export violence to the four corners of the globe to make sure that [9/11] doesn’t happen again.”)  After talking with a colleague, though, Pantano returned and removed the sign.  The event was reviewed shortly thereafter by at least his Company command and probably the Battalion as well.

Several weeks later, Sgt Coburn talked about the incident to Marines in another unit, expressing his concerns about what took place.  This started the process that turned into a months-long investigation.  On 1 February 2005, Pantano, now stateside, was charged with two counts of premeditated murder, a capital offense.  On 15 April, Pantano requested that his Article 32 hearing be waived.  (Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, an Article 32 hearing serves as a grand jury investigation.)  Pantano wanted to speed up the process and ensure that valuable witnesses could testify, as many were about to deploy again and the military is only obligated to produce witnesses if they are “reasonably available”.  Further, the bodies of the two Iraqis had been buried in an area that was then outside American control, and the official explanation was that an exhumation of the bodies for a proper post-mortem was considered impossible due to ongoing combat operations.

One major item to consider here is the motivation for Sgt Coburn in reporting the incident.  Pantano had previously removed Coburn from a position of authority within the platoon, as squad leader, and re-assigned him to being a radio operator (a responsibility well below his rank).  Pantano had considered Coburn marginally capable as a squad leader, and this was at least partially due to their different personalities and leadership style, but combat is not a situation that suffers the least tolerance.  The precipitating event was during a previous patrol when, within close sight of uncleared buildings, Coburn had his squad take a break, facing inboard, helmets removed. That is a serious security breach and was enough for Pantano to remove Coburn as squad leader. 

The position of radioman is important (if you can’t communicate, you’re alone), but the assignment is typically given to a bright Lance Corporal.  The relationship between a platoon commander and his radioman has to be close and tight, and I used to gently rein in some of mine because after a time, they were smart enough to start anticipating my calls when I was actually thinking of moving in a different direction.  The entire platoon, a close-knit family, knew immediately why Coburn was moved to radioman, and Coburn had to suffer the mortification while having to continue to serve in the same unit.  I had a similar situation with a Corporal, so I can empathize with Pantano's situation.

Was Coburn trying to exact some self-serving revenge on Pantano by putting some spin on the shooting incident, which was enough to be questionable anyway?  That is difficult to assess, but my opinion leans to the affirmative.  It was clear that his statements given to investigators formed a key element of the case, even after Pantano had been found without fault by a battlefield inquiry.  Gobles was interviewed several times and, though he was generally supportive of the lieutenant, his statements changed over the course of the case until he made the statement that the two insurgents were shot while running away.  This development of his recollections over time probably is the result of continued pressure by the investigators, and it was later disproved by the physical evidence which showed that the two bodies were left half in and half out of the vehicle.

Pantano's request for a waiver of his Article 32 hearing was denied at any rate, and it was to his advantage.  The hearing officer, LtCol Mark Winn, found that "The government was not able to produce credible evidence or testimony that the killings were premeditated. . . . There was no credible evidence presented by the government that proved these men were not shot in the front. . . .  It is my opinion that the government failed to provide any other evidence that 2nd Lt. Pantano had planned to kill these two men, and therefore was unable to satisfy elements of the charge of murder."  Further, he was particularly displeased with the testimony of Sgt Coburn, saying that he “invented details to corroborate what he had built in his mind as what had happened.”
On the witness stand, [Coburn] changed his testimony more than once when he was confronted with additional facts of the case of which he was not previously aware.
Winn did not spare Pantano in his remarks either.  In Winn's recommendations to the Commanding General as to the disposition of the case, the charges were dismissed, but Winn recommended that Pantano be subject to non-judicial punishment (an idea somewhat limited to the Uniform Code of Military Justice) for Article 133 (Conduct Unbecoming an Officer), for his focus on the car and search to the detriment of his ability to be concerned with the overall mission of his platoon and the cordon and search of the area.  He was particularly critical of the sign that Pantano initially left behind, and of the excessive number of rounds that he fired during the incident.

I would have to say first and foremost that I was not there and cannot put myself entirely into Pantano’s position, but I have to concur with Winn’s opinion that Pantano, while correct in his combat assessment, went overboard in his reaction, though I disagree with the recommendation for NJP.  (This instead should have been an impromptu counseling session with his Company Commander.)  The sign was unnecessary, as Pantano himself quickly recognised, but I have to question his expending so many rounds.  No matter how effective your logistic train, and I expect that it was non-existent at that precise moment, I simply cannot see depleting my personal combat load of ammunition so haphazardly while still engaged in a combat patrol.  A very basic lesson of a Marine leader is fire discipline – ensuring that your unit uses only as much ammunition as is necessary as insurance against the next attack that is bound to pop up an instant later – and that would certainly apply to the leader as well.  In particular, continuing with a second magazine was unnecessary, and that remains my only specific criticism.  Pantano is a pretty bright fellow, and I suspect that he probably concurs at this late date.  Besides, it’s not like I never made a bone-headed decision in my time.

As icing on the cake, it turns out that the bodies of the insurgents, previously deemed unavailable due to the events of the Second Battle of Fallujah, were finally obtained with the concurrence of their families, and flown to the Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover AFB in Delaware for examination by forensic anthropologist Dr William Rodriguez.  One of the key accusations of the trial counsel, based on Sgt Coburn’s statements, was that the insurgents had been shot in the back.   Dr Rodriguez was able to show that they had actually been shot from the front, corroborating Pantano’s account of the incident.

A further, greater significance is Dr Rodriguez’ comments about the atmosphere of his examination, published years later and recently, after his retirement last October, and taking the unusual step of going public with his criticism:

I think there was a rush to judgment. . . . 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.  They were looking at really going after him, making an example of him.
Rodriguez was moved to write a personal letter to Pantano himself, explaining his bitterness over the intervening years about how the Marine Corps and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) had treated him.

I openly expressed on numerous occasions to my colleagues in the office, including a NCIS agent assigned to our office, that I found it unconscionable to bring charges against you with simple hearsay. I informed the NCIS agent and others in that 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.
Rodriguez wrote of the day that he examined the bodies to determine where they had been shot, either in the back on in the front.

When the remains arrived, I didn’t expect the large crowds of people to [be] present at the mortuary.  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 him.’
Pantano’s defense attorney, Charles Gittens, explains:

The medical examiner’s letter underscores the fact that [the] government proceeded to murder charges and the hearing without doing their homework.  For the medical examiner to contact Ilario Pantano demonstrates a concern the doctor had for the political ramifications for the case.
Gittens indicates that the bodies, previously considered too dangerous to retrieve, were sought out after Winn’s conclusion in the hearing and they were exhumed after obtaining permission from their families and the village elders.  If the autopsy showed that they had been shot in the back, that would be enough to override the hearing recommendation and proceed to court-martial.

I don’t think it was to exonerate Ilario.  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.
When Rodriguez concluded his exam, the agents rushed him to complete his report immediately, which was then taken directly to the Pentagon.  Two days later, the convening officer of the case, Major General Richard Huck, Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division, elected to drop the case entirely with no further action against Pantano, citing the autopsy report as part of the reason.

As the dust was settling after the case, Lt Pantano was offered another combat assignment, which he had said that he sought.  It is one thing for Pantano to return to battle as a matter of exoneration and propitiation, but though he could weather the toll, I expect that stress was understandably too much for his family.  He soon resigned his Marine commission, and now resides in North Carolina as a deputy sheriff with his wife and two young sons.  After a hard-fought Republican primary campaign, he ran for the House of Representatives in 2010 against a incumbent conservative Democrat but lost.  He is on the ballot again for 2012 and is running a vigorous campaign, tackling the same basic conservative issues (with the same intensity) as his neighbors Tim Scott of South Carolina and Allen West of Florida.  He is also the author of Warlord: Broken by War, Saved by Grace, an autobiography that includes details about the case, outlines the constant and various struggles on the battlefield, and delves into his subsequent soul-searching and the impact of the grace of God.  And Pantano explains in his introduction the emotional meeting he had with Dr Rodriguez, including:

Dr Rodriguez's letter clears the air around any mystery that lingers among conspiracy theorists.  Not only was I not protected by the military, I was made an example of.
What would compel high-ranking members of the Marine Corps and the Defense Department to desperately pursue a case against one of their own on such shoddy grounds?  The trial counsel (prosecutor) did not adequately vet Sgt Coburn, their star witness; HM3 Goble’s final statement that matched what the investigators were looking for immediately collapsed in the light of obvious evidence; and they were expected to pursue charges of premeditated murder with no examination of the bodies of the purported victims.  My only conclusion must be that elements of the Left who have dogged these wars for stories such as this to disparage primarily the Bush administration in particular as well as their concept of a military composed of the stereotypes they keep pushing on the public, supported by the media (but I repeat myself), were convinced that war crimes must be happening someplace, and a public court-martial in this case would have to be vigorously pursued to demonstrate how in tune we were with human rights, and how much we agreed with the Left’s a priori assumptions. 

(It is immediately reminiscent to me of the famous court-martial in 1902 during the Boer War, wherein the British authorities tried officers of the Australian Bushveldt Carbineers in an effort to curry favor with Germany in order to secure a treaty to end the war.  The account was made famous, in Australia at least, with the publishing of Scapegoats of the Empire in 1907 by one of the survivors of the court-martial, and is known today primarily through the Australian movie Breaker Morant, released in 1980.)

No matter how movies or television may present it, even the most righteous kill under combat conditions is never taken lightly.  I can understand Lt Pantano's rationale for his actions that day, though I admittedly question his degree of zeal, but his actions were in keeping with the event as it unfolded and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity or his progress in coming to grips with the situation of that day or the events thereafter.

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”  --Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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