Out of jail, Marine is cheered in Mukilteo

MUKILTEO — Robert Pennington and his father, Terry Pennington, ascended a pair of tall stepladders in place along a wall of the Electroimpact company.

They fussed with ties that held a 12-foot banner proclaiming: “Free Rob Pennington.”

When the banner fluttered to the ground, an appreciative crowd of about 150 cheered.

It was a homecoming for the 22-year-old U.S. Marine.

Robert Pennington had been sitting in a military jail in early August after he pleaded guilty to kidnapping and conspiracy to murder an Iraqi civilian during a combat mission in the town of Hamdania.

On Friday, the 2002 graduate of Kamiak High School became a local hero to those who pushed for his release.

A Marine Corps general ordered former Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington’s release from custody in August while his sentence and status as a Marine is being reviewed.

He was one of eight Marines and a Navy corpsman who were arrested and were convicted for dragging a civilian from a house, shooting him dead and covering things up by making it look as if the man was planting a roadside bomb.

Only one of the eight is still in custody.

The squad leader, Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, was convicted in a military court of murder and sentenced to 15 years behind bars. In court, Robert Pennington said it was Hutchins who hatched the plot to kidnap the man after the squad became frustrated in its effort to find a suspected insurgent in April 2006.

The case generated national publicity.

Now a private, Robert Pennington’s status with the military is uncertain. The general could give him a dishonorable discharge or could allow him to continue with the Marines.

Terry Pennington said his son pleaded guilty only because it seemed the cards were stacked against the Marine, and there wasn’t a chance of acquittal at trial.

“We don’t know what he’s going to do,” Terry Pennington said of the general. “He could make it like it never happened if he wants.”

His mother, Deanna Pennington, said the military jury pool had nobody in it who had been in combat and knew what pressures young men and women facing danger really experience.

“He could have spent life in prison,” she said. “It’s impossible for us to sit back and quarterback what they did.”

The fighters face split-second decisions in combat, she said. Many of her son’s friends had been killed in Iraq.

“Everyone’s a suspect,” she said. The feeling is that “either you’re going to be killed or they’re going to kill your best friend. Death is a reality to (the Marines). It’s what they live every day.”

Terry and Deanna Pennington are former Mukilteo residents who have since moved to Hawaii. They came back to the town and people who supported them while fighting for their son’s freedom. He is a computer manager for Rane, a company located next to Electroimpact.

It was Electroimpact president Peter Zieve who put up the banner and helped with the strategy to free the Marine.

Robert Pennington said he doesn’t consider himself a hero.

“I just go out and do my job,” he said.

In court, he apologized to the Marine Corps and others for what happened. He said that he knew the kidnapping was wrong, but he participated because he and his fellow Marines were tired of suspected insurgents escaping justice.

“If I could go back and change what happened, I would,” he said Friday.

It was his third deployment to Iraq after joining the Marines in 2002, in a large part because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In four years, he spent 16 months in Iraq, he said.

Terry Pennington believes the military overreacted by incarcerating the squad members, didn’t fully investigate and didn’t treat the Marines fairly.

He agrees his son violated normal rules of engagement, but those who judged his son were not there. In addition, he said the original 14-year sentence given to his son was grossly unfair.

Reporter Jim Haley: 425-339-3447 or jhaley@heraldnet.com.

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