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Under Fire Combat Marine Tells His Story

Monday, 21 March 2005 12:00 AM

"The job description of an infantry platoon commander is to close with and destroy the enemy. Kill is part of our vernacular. That's part of our job. So to speak to murder with premeditation in the context of defending my life is outrageous."

Pantano, who served as an enlisted Marine in the Gulf War, came back into the Corps after the 9/11 attacks – this time as an officer. By April 2004, the newly commissioned 2nd lieutenant was on patrol with his platoon in Iraq, just in time for the deadliest month of the war for American forces.

As a warm-up to his own day of infamy, he and his Marines engaged in a six-hour gun battle that began with an ambush. "This was the wake-up call to all of us that we were - that things had really transitioned from the peacekeeping mode to full combat mode," Pantano revealed.

Earlier, Pantano had pledged to bring all of his young charges home – a vow he was to keep even through all those bloody and dangerous months in-country.

On April 15th, his unit got a tip from some Iraqis in a town south of Baghdad, but the vigilant, wily Pantano says he smelled a set-up to an ambush. There were too many details in the tip – and even a map – all too good to be true.

"And the most critical clue was that the people who gave us this information drew a map," the officer told Phillips. "We had never had that kind of a windfall of information. So this thing smelled like an ambush immediately."

Trusting his instinct of pending danger, Pantano related how he reacted. "We went in heavy. We had machine guns with us because we fully expected we would be ambushed by some larger force as we had seen just days prior.

"In the process of starting [my] squads moving forward [toward the house identified by the tipsters], we saw a white sedan start pulling away from the house. And I - I ordered the vehicle to stop.

"We fired a couple of shots into the ground, and they knew to stop the car. I had to grab my radio operator and my corpsman and go after the car because it was now away from the target house down the road.

"I order my corpsman to do a - a search of the car. He looks, finds nothing.

"When I heard [over the radio] that there was this arms cache [found] at the house, I thought these guys are bad guys and that they know they've been caught.

"I wanted the car looked at more thoroughly, and I wanted them to do it. I wanted them to take the car to the bones, and I didn't want to risk one of my Marines, or my sailor, my corpsman, in this - what could be a dangerous procedure."

Armed with an M-16 semi-automatic rifle, Pantano watched the Iraqis as they began to search the car, one the front seat, the other the back. He says they began speaking to each other in muffled tones in Arabic:

"I give them a command in Arabic to stop. They continue, then there was this moment of quiet. I felt - I could feel like the oxygen getting sucked out of my lungs. I could feel this thing was happening. There was this beat, and they both pivoted to me at the same time, moving towards me at the same time. And in that moment of them, you know, of them disobeying my command to stop and pivoting to me at the same time, I shot them.

"I didn't wait to see if there was a grenade. I didn't wait to see if there was a knife. And unfortunately, there are a lot of dead soldiers and Marines who have waited too long. And my men weren't going to be those dead soldiers and Marines and neither was I.

"There wasn't time for a warning shot. There was time for action, and I had to act. It becomes - it becomes very personal. It stops being about war and moving blue arrows and little pieces and big pieces and we'll hold this bridge and take this ground. These guys tried to kill me. That's what I'm feeling. And the language that's - that's going through my head at that point was ‘no better friend, and no worse enemy.'

That phrase comprised the unofficial motto of Pantano's division in Iraq. Invented and promoted by the division commander, General James Mattis, the lead officer wanted his Marines to bring help to friendly Iraqis - and a world of hurt to anyone who stood in their way.

According to witness accounts and Pantano's own voluntary statement, Pantano wrote the motto on the piece of cardboard, then placed it on the car above the bullet-ridden bodies.

"Those words, ‘no better friend, no worse enemy,' were repeatedly drilled into us. It was our - the mantra of our mission," Pantano told Phillips.

That night he returned to base and was debriefed – with no great hue-and-cry being raised about what he had done:

"The mood was congratulatory. It was, you know, these guys made a mistake. It was ‘they picked wrong Marine,'" Pantano related.

However, Pantano's radio operator raised questions about the shooting to a fellow Marine, and that Marine, in turn, reported it to his chain of command. According to a statement from the radio operator, Pantano, after learning about the cache of weapons at the house, bashed the Iraqis' car with his rifle butt and seemed "like he wanted to teach them a lesson."

But Pantano explained it this way to Phillips: "I wouldn't say that I was angry. I would say that I was feeling like we had had a successful mission."

Eventually, Pantano was pulled from the field and lost command of his platoon. Then, after returning to the U.S., he got word that the Marines were charging him with murder:

"I put the sign on - on the car, nowhere on the bodies, to show my Marines this could have been them that would be dead. And I took the sign down two minutes later."

Documents indicate that there was some evidence that the suspects were shot in the back, a claim reportedly based on no firm forensic evidence. (The bodies were turned over to the Iraqis and buried, according to the Pantano defense team.)

"I shot them in the sides, I shot them in the chest, I shot them as they were turning towards me," explained Pantano.

But documents associated with the charges allege that Pantano emptied a magazine and then emptied a second magazine.

"The speed it took me to wipe the sweat off my brow is how quickly you fire and reload a magazine. I shot them until they stopped moving … [C]ombat is a pretty ugly business. What's the right number of rounds to save your life? I would say it's enough until there is no more threat … I kept firing until they stop moving. It doesn't take a lot of energy to pull a grenade pin. To protect the lives of my men, I would do it again in a moment," he said.

The radio operator who complained had been relieved as a squad leader by Pantano, who describes him as being disgruntled."My second most senior person in my platoon was relegated to one of the most junior positions that you can have in a platoon. A sergeant of 10 years was carrying the radio for me… I don't think he ever thought it would take the direction that it's taken."

The Navy corpsman present at the scene told investigators that he heard Pantano yell ‘Stop!' before the shooting began. And when he turned to look, he thought the Iraqis were trying to flee.

It is conceded – thus far – that neither the corpsman nor the Marine sergeant saw what happened in the critical seconds before Pantano opened fire.

Pantano summarized: "I was told to go do a job. My job is to locate the enemy. In this case, the enemy threatened me and I killed the enemy… The saddest day of my life is – is - is this day, is this moment where I have to use my - my passions to defend myself against my Corps instead of defending my country against our enemies. That is what breaks my heart."


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"The job description of an infantry platoon commander is to close with and destroy the enemy. Kill is part of our vernacular. That's part of our job. So to speak to murder with premeditation in the context of defending my life is outrageous." Pantano, who served as an...
Monday, 21 March 2005 12:00 AM
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