The Marine Corps officer charged with murder for killing two Iraqi insurgents was featured last spring in a gripping, first-hand account by an embedded Time magazine reporter who illustrated the hair-trigger intensity U.S. fighters endured facing an increasingly sophisticated foe on the outskirts of Fallujah.
Coalition forces on patrol (Photo: WorldNews.com)
The story showed 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano’s deep frustration with high-level decisions as forces preparing in late April for an onslaught of the terrorist-stronghold were ordered to pull back.
The reporter, Paul Quinn-Judge, picks up Pantano’s 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines Easy Company on April 24, just nine days after the incident for which the officer now faces formal allegations that could lead to the death penalty.
“From afar,” Quinn-Judge wrote, “the fighting in and around Fallujah since the Marines laid siege to the city a month ago appears to be a series of brief skirmishes and sporadic gunfights. But it doesn’t look that way to anyone who spent time on the ground with the Marines of Easy Company. The Marines are at war with a well-organized and relentless enemy.”
The setting for the account also was three weeks after the bodies of four slain U.S. contractors were burned, mutilated and displayed in public, launching a period in which casualties to coalition forces increased by 400 percent, to 1,000.
But the Marines were eager to enter Fallujah where the casualty rate undoubtedly would spike even further.
“The men are expecting a nasty fight from the insurgents, who have surprised them with the sophistication of their tactics,” the Time report said.
The Marines, however, received word from commanders to pull back and allow the new Iraqi force to enter the city.
Pantano was among the many in Easy Company who, according to Quinn-Judge, “viewed the decision as a retreat from the U.S. pledge to drive the ‘bad guys’ out of Fallujah.”
The story quotes Pantano saying: “Does this remind you of another part of the world in the early ’70s?” referring to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
The Time reporter said that while it was understood the decision provided an opportunity for the Iraqis to prove they can take control of their own security, the Marines “felt angry, frustrated and deeply skeptical that the deal would work.”
“As they packed up their equipment and cleared out from their forward operating base, they were fuming,” the reporter wrote.
Despite the agreement, the Marines still were taking heavy fire from the insurgents.
“This is so surreal,” Pantano said, after being briefed on the agreement. “I had to write it down in my journal to make sure I wasn’t making it up.”
Prior to the decision to pull out, Quinn-Judge recounted how Pantano, as platoon commander, led his men to the southern edge of Fallujah to help destroy two bunkers insurgents were using to fire on their positions.
Easy’s Third Platoon moved in to inspect one of the buildings, which had been hit the day before by a 500-lb. bomb. Platoon Commander 2nd Lieut. Ilario Pantano reported back that they had found gun emplacements and binoculars and that the building was still usable by insurgents. Another Marine later recalled the smell of death. Tank fire would finish the house off. Then, to their north, they spotted the movement of three or four men. Some of them appeared to be carrying guns.
The Marines aren’t taking chances. Two days earlier, seven Marines were wounded in an ambush on this road.
The Marines sprint away from the building as the first tank round thunders in. Soon after they trot past the rest of the company, the whole group starts to take fire.
“I can hear yelling and talking to the north,” a Marine tells Captain Bradley Weston, the company’s commanding officer. A bunch of Marines jump up and fire back in the general direction of the noise. Others lay down white phosphorus to mark the area where the insurgents’ fire seems to have come from. A tank pumps in more tracer. From the roof of an unfinished building, Marines blast the target with machine guns, providing protective cover.
The rest of the Marines pull back, running across a field and over to bushes, urged on by yelling noncommissioned officers (NCOs). They expect the insurgents to harass them all the way back to their base.
One young man falls and lies prone on the ground, his head pressed down as if afraid something might hit him. His hands shake uncontrollably. Chachi, a member of Easy Company’s intelligence unit who asks to be identified only by his nickname, turns to me as we run for cover. “Having fun?” he asks, making clear that he is. “This is what it’s all about.”
Quinn-Judge noted how the insurgents routinely broke a cease-fire in effect at the time, “lobbing mortars and rockets at the Marines’ positions from every direction.”
He described being part of the platoon as it moved to take out the second bunker.
It is taken out, and within minutes we are pulling back under fire. We run across a field divided by an irrigation ditch. “Get in that f——- ditch!” an NCO shouts. We sink to our waist in the water, scrabbling for grip in the slippery mud. “Get out of that f—— ditch!” the same NCO yells, just as our feet touch bottom.
We dash across the field and pause for breath. When we reach the base, it’s already daybreak. A sense of euphoria kicks in. Some faces are pale, others flushed. Some Marines light cigarettes and laugh about the night’s adventures. The company has taken no casualties. “This has been really good for morale,” says 2nd Lieut. Nathan Dmochowksi. “We have taken so much s— from those positions.” A couple of Marines flash sly smiles at me. “Stick around,” says one of them. “This is only the beginning.”
After returning from the operation, the Marines spoke of the decision to not go into Fallujah.
“What you saw today is only 10 percent of what they would have got if we had gone into the city,” Staff Sergeant Naaman Clark told the Time reporter. “But this is an election year, and politics got in the way. We’re going to be here for a long time.”
Quinn-Judge gave a picture of the spartan conditions in which the 200 members of Easy Company lived – an abandoned administrative building with 10 rooms.
One [room] is the “lounge,” home to the ammunition and the commanding officer. In the other rooms, on both sides of the 5-ft.-wide corridor, and even in the bathrooms, men sleep in their clothes, with their weapons, for as long as and whenever they can. There is no electricity, sanitation or water; ready-to-eat meals and 300 gal. of drinking water are brought in daily from the Marines’ headquarters at Camp Fallujah, a dangerous 40-min. drive away.
Pantano’s attorney, Charles Gittins, emphasizing the high casualty rate at the time, said the April 15 incident took place when the officer’s quick-reaction battalion was dispatched to capture an arms cache at an insurgent hideaway. After finding weapons, the Marines stopped two Iraqis fleeing in an SUV by shooting out the vehicles tires.
Pantano, armed with an M-16, had the Iraqis search the vehicle in case it was booby trapped. While performing the search, the Marine said he heard the two men talking among themselves then saw them turn.
The lieutenant thought the Iraqis were coming at him and ordered them in Arabic to stop. When they didn’t obey, Pantano shot them with “many rounds,” according to Gittins.
The lawyer acknowledged the Iraqis turned out to be unarmed, but insists his client didn’t know it at the time.
Pantano immediately reported the incident to his superiors and an internal investigation cleared him, allowing him to continue in combat duty for another three months. After returning to Camp Lejeune, however, he learned he had been accused by a subordinate Gittins describes as a “disgruntled” sargeant who had experienced “difficulties” in the unit.
According to a Marine Corps spokesman at Camp Lejeune, an Article 32 hearing – similar to a pretrial hearing, determining whether there will be a court martial – tentatively is scheduled for about the 10th or 11th of March.
Since news of the charges was first reported last Friday, many Americans have expressed outrage, asking how a Marine with a strong reputation can be second-guessed in the heat of battle.
The spokesman for the Marine Corp Second Division, Maj. Matt Morgan, told WorldNetDaily he understands the intense concern but urges confidence in the military justice system.
“Americans have seen what is in the press, and they have a tendency to support the Marines,” he said. “On the other side of that, completely unconnected, there is something called the law of war, and it is possible for a Marine to violate that. To say you can’t second-guess a Marine – well, every Marine who deploys has the experience that anything they do can be second-guessed.”
Gittins, however, told WND his client “feels like he’s been betrayed.”
“They didn’t mind him out there dodging bullets for three months after this happened,” he said.