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Hell's Kitchen


Pantano in a school east of Fallujah, 2004. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ilario Pantano)

It is a long way from the Harrison to an unpaved road outside Baghdad. Sitting in the restaurant, Pantano tries, for a second, to bridge the gap. “The threat is from everywhere and all the time,” he offers. He motions out the window, indicates across the street, as if to say, as close as the apartment with the flower box on the sill.

Dinner comes and goes. Pantano thinks about Coburn sometimes. He’d enlisted out of high school, he knows. Like Pantano, he was one of the few married guys in the platoon. As an infantry sergeant, he was marginal—“subpar” was the standard phrase. Pantano viewed him as in need of constant supervision, but not a bad person, not a bad Marine. Even now, Pantano supposes he got caught in “a dance that he may not have thought out all of the steps to.”

Then, momentarily, he entertains another thought. “Maybe I just don’t want to believe that somebody who is alive based on decisions I made, and not just on that date but others, many of them, would willfully subject me and my family to this,” he says. “I don’t think, I can’t believe—’cause that would be evil . . .”

It’s been four hours. “It gets to the point I don’t want to know, I can’t do it, I can’t,” he says. “So I have to take time away, I have to.” Tomorrow’s plan is to visit the new loft of his best friend from Horace Mann. Together, they’ll watch Battlestar Galactica—“the greatest show ever,” Pantano says—just as they did in high school.

Even as a child, Pantano stood out. Everyone noticed it. He grew up in Hell’s Kitchen—“the projects,” as one affluent friend put it—and attended Horace Mann on half-scholarship. “And paying half was a big sacrifice,” says his father, a gentle-mannered Italian immigrant who works as a freelance tourist guide.

At school, “I’d have this unbelievable, almost palatial retreat,” says Pantano, referring to the school’s eighteen verdant acres, its Gothic architecture. “And I’d come home in the afternoon and I’d get into fights with kids [with] knives, hammers.”

No wonder that as a child, Pantano dreamed about rescuers. He wanted to be Lancelot, knight of the Round Table. “He thought it was such an important job,” his aunt recalls. Then he wanted to be a samurai, practicing for hours with a sword. “There was something that was so powerful to me about being a protector of others,” Pantano says. It was a way, as he put it, “to order the chaos.”

Even at school, that unusual desire seemed to inform who he was. To hear classmates talk, it was as if a ship deposited a square, chivalrous Midwesterner in their midst. “He was that good guy who always did the right thing,” says a high-school friend. He was fun, transcended cliques, “didn’t lie,” says another friend, and also seemed instinctually patriotic. Did any other New York preppy hang an American flag on his bedroom wall?

He didn’t touch marijuana, telling a friend, “It’s illegal.” He dated one of the school’s prettiest girls—they snuck into clubs and danced all night. “He made me feel like Guinevere,” says Haley Fox, who now owns Alice’s Tea Cup on the Upper West Side.

In 1989, as his classmates packed for college, Pantano chose a different course. He’d never seemed particularly aggressive, not a fighter—he was in the drama club. Still, he’d long been obsessed with things military, read all about Vietnam, wore camouflage pants across the Riverdale campus, and once the Intrepid pulled into town, the gray old aircraft carrier became a virtual clubhouse. Now, on graduating from the elite high school, he enlisted in the Marines. “I would venture to say no one has ever enlisted in the Marines in the history of Horace Mann,” says a classmate.

Perhaps it was appealing to prove himself in a way none of his affluent classmates dared. The warrior was about discipline and deed; it was about “striving valiantly,” as his hero Teddy Roosevelt said, not inheriting it. His choice baffled friends. “The Marines—really, that was out there, crazy,” says his best friend from high school, Alexander Roy, who runs Europe by Car, a rental company. His father thought the same. To the Italian immigrant, the choice felt like a sad bit of class predetermination. Pantano’s father had few illusions about himself. “I am a moon,” he says. “My son is a sun. I wanted him to be a person of importance, what I never did.” The only way Pantano’s father could make sense of the decision was as a reaction to his parents’ recent separation. “A little punishment,” he says.

“No, Daddy,” Pantano told his father. “I want to be a Marine.” He explained, “The Marine Corps was the closest I could get to a knight.”

Pantano seemed immediately at ease in the company of aspiring warriors. “Traveling the world, shooting guns,” said his Marine buddy Jeff Dejessie. “We’re men; that’s what we’re meant to do.” Pantano brought to the Marines his overachieving ways. “If we had a run and had to score 280 to pick up rank, 99 percent of the people would just do enough,” says Dejessie. “Ilario would be sprinting like a maniac to get 300.” Pantano went to sniper school, one of the Marine Corps’ toughest.

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