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Hell's Kitchen

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Dan Coburn with his sons, Nathan and Jason, in their backyard near Camp Lejeune. (Photo Credit: Katy Grannan)

The platoon responded in two seven-ton trucks and two Humvees. When a white sedan drove away, Pantano stopped it. With him were Doc Gobles and his new radio operator, Sergeant Coburn.

Over the next year, these three would write at least seven confidential accounts of the next few minutes, copies of which have been obtained by New York Magazine. All agree that Gobles initially searched the car.

It must have been near 6 P.M. when Pantano received a report on the contents of the house: mortar-aiming stakes, three AK-47s, ten AK magazines, assault vests, a flare gun, a box with Iraqi money, and wires that could perhaps be used in making bombs.

“Everybody has a few weapons,” said Coburn. Pantano didn’t see it that way. “It was clear that the two men were complicit in anti-coalition-force activities,” he wrote. At that point, Pantano ordered the men to be put in plastic handcuffs.

Pantano shifted into a more vigilant mode. To Coburn, this was a sign of trouble. “Lieutenant Pantano got mad,” Coburn wrote. He “started butt-stroking the car, breaking windows and lights, then walked around the car slashing all of the tires.” Coburn became convinced the two Iraqis, who claimed to be visiting relatives, would be released for lack of evidence.

Pantano denies saying anything to this effect, but in Coburn’s notion, this angered Pantano. “He had it in his mind that these were the people that were killing us,” says Coburn. Coburn paints a picture of a Pantano who “seemed a little pissed off,” who “seemed like he wanted to teach them a lesson.”

For Coburn, fresh from his own lesson at Pantano’s hands, this was hardly an unusual state for the lieutenant. In Coburn’s second statement, he recalls an example that he found revealing. “Pantano always told us that if we were to shoot the enemy Iraqi, we should do it to the point that it would send a message to everyone else,” wrote Coburn.

Pantano was certainly keyed up—from the start, he wrote, “my senses were fully alert”—but in his account, his actions were thought-out, methodical. Disabling an insurgent’s car, for instance, had become standard procedure for him.

Pantano told Gobles to cut off the cuffs. Other Marines used Iraqis to search their cars, though not usually after they’d been handcuffed. “My aim was to have them pull apart the seats so that [I] could verify if anything was hidden in them,” wrote Pantano.

To Coburn, this seemed suspicious. “[Doc] had already done a full search,” he wrote. To Pantano, the search had only been “cursory.” Gobles led the two Iraqis to the driver’s-side doors, and then Pantano directed Coburn and Gobles to post security, facing away from the vehicle. “As soon as I turned my back Lieutenant Pantano opened [fire] with approximately 45 rounds,” wrote Coburn. “Me and Doc Gobles were both shocked about what just happened.”

The two Iraqis were the first people Pantano had killed up close—probably the first that he could be certain he killed. Prosecutors would later interpret it as an execution. That’s why Pantano had the cuffs cut off and the soldiers face away. To Coburn, the storm of bullets reinforced that idea.

Pantano had thought about the incident often, which seemed, in his telling, an elaborately rational process. In Pantano’s account, the Iraqis were conferring while searching. Pantano told them to be quiet in Arabic—Gobles heard him do it. They didn’t. Their backs were to Pantano. “After another time of telling them to be quiet, they quickly pivoted their bodies toward each other,” he wrote. “They did this simultaneously, while still speaking in muffled Arabic. I thought they were attacking me.”

“Maybe I just don’t want to believe that someone who is alive based on decisions I made,” says Pantano, “would willfully subject me and my family to this.”

Pantano said that the two Iraqis kept moving after he started to fire, perhaps reacting to impact, which was one reason he continued to shoot, even in their backs.

There was another reason for all the firepower, which he says he decided while shooting. “I believed that by firing the number of rounds that I did, I was sending a message.” In case anyone missed the point, Pantano scrawled something on a piece of cardboard, which he wedged against the windshield. NO BETTER FRIEND, NO WORST ENEMY, it said. He meant the Marines. It was General Mattis’s motto.

Staff Sergeant Glew came running up to learn what happened. Glew later said Pantano told him that “he was instructing the locals to search the vehicle, and he said they lunged towards him.” Glew said that Pantano “just looked at me and said, ‘So I shot them. I’m not playing around with that.’”

“Roger that, sir,” said Glew. “Where are we going next?”

Coburn remembers that Marines walked off toward the target house. They joked about Pantano’s kill. “People are always happy when you kill someone,” says Coburn.

No one seemed to think much about the killings after that. Pantano led them on patrol—one time, Pantano barely escaped from a rooftop where he was pinned down by a sniper—and into the battle for Fallujah, where their excruciating training paid off. They ran out of Fallujah carrying 50 pounds of gear, gunshots at their backs. “We fucking ran forever,” remembered Lance Corporal Johnson.

Seven weeks later, Coburn mentioned the incident to a lance corporal who used to be in the company. Coburn’s captain later wondered why he hadn’t brought the matter to him. Maybe Coburn was concerned about the effect on the platoon, as he once said. Maybe, as he also said, “they”—the superior officers—“are all basically rooting for him”—Pantano—“so they would have squashed it right then and there.”

Over the next eight months, investigators hoped to exhume the bodies of the two Iraqis, who by now had names: Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Ahmead Hanjil. They were buried in a cemetery in Latifiyah, which proved too dangerous to reach. And so the investigation focused on testimony—increasingly, it seemed, on that of Doc Gobles, who’d make four written statements.

Pantano’s situation seems to inflict a special discomfort on the medic. He calls Pantano “a great leader and a great American.” Still, he feels uneasy. “There’re going to be things that are going be a little peculiar toward him,” he says.

For Gobles, the chief “peculiar thing” appears to be that he had searched the car twice before Pantano instructed the Iraqis to search it. His first was “hasty.” Still, it yielded, Gobles says, cans of wires and screws, “insurgent tools of the trade.” For Gobles’s second search, he removed the front and back seats, center console, and dashboard, none of which were bolted down, which alarmed Gobles.

Later, when Gobles posted security, his back to the vehicle, he watched “out of the corner of my eye.” He’d say he saw the guy in the front seat “rotate his head and upper body in the direction of” Pantano, consistent with Pantano’s account. Gobles concluded that he was trying to flee.

Clearly, investigators pushed Gobles, interviewing him four times in one month. Finally, they got Doc Gobles to say this: “I know for a fact that if I were in Lieutenant Pantano’s shoes under the same circumstances, I would not have fired at the Iraqis. I believe this was an unjustified shooting.”

Over the phone, though, he seems uncomfortable with that statement. “Well, maybe he”—Pantano—“could have butt-stroked them with his rifle or tried to tackle them or something,” Gobles explains from his barracks at Camp Lejeune. “But in that situation, it’s the man’s decision that is there at the time,” he adds. “Whether or not something could have been done differently, who’s to say that?”

In late June, Pantano was relieved of his platoon command and reassigned to an operations center. Pantano recalls his first day at his new post was Father’s Day 2004. On the radio, he heard that a squad from his platoon was getting hit. Lance Corporal Johnson, the one who said how everyone respected Pantano, was in a Humvee. A bullet pierced the side; shrapnel got him in the arm, the platoon’s first serious casualty. (He’d lose the arm. “Just cut the darn shit off and be on my way,” he’d tell the doctors.)


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