During the first Gulf War, Pantano was part of an anti-tank platoon. He still remembers that the call to combat, when it finally came, made his bottom lip tremble so that he could hardly breathe. The ground war lasted just four days, and the Marines were greeted as liberators. “It was a safe war,” Pantano says. Still, he felt bullets whiz past his head and discovered that with fear came a pure, almost athletic thrill. “The feeling that somebody’s trying to kill you, but they’re not succeeding, but not for lack of trying,” he says, “there’s something about the complete sensory, the focus—it’s exhilarating.” His father says, “The greatest experience of his life was fighting a war.”
After his tour, Sergeant Pantano—impressively, he earned the rank in under four years—returned to New York, where he bartended at the Outback on 93rd Street while zipping through NYU. He often ran into former classmates, budding professionals, already perhaps a little doughy around the middle. They seemed awestruck. Said one, “He looked like he’d grown seven inches and was made of sculpted brass.” Life out of the Marines could seem paler. Pantano’s Marine buddies talked about it all the time. “You get back to mundane life, job, wife, girlfriend,” says Dejessie. “You miss that primal thing.”
Still, he had other priorities now. He was 22 when he left the Marines. “As a mature adult,” he says, “I had expectations that I had to live up to. And you can’t go backward. I needed to be moving forward, experiencing new things.”
Soon, he landed a job at Goldman Sachs, where he excelled. “He’s one of the most diligent people I’ve ever known,” says Chris Henwood, a trader who worked with him. Within a couple of years, he was an electricity trader, trading next-day delivery. “For a father, it’s a dream for a son to be in an environment like this,” says Pantano’s father. “Where he can make a future for himself.”
Yet, says Pantano, “I didn’t love the work.” You didn’t have to harbor rescue fantasies to appreciate the dismal state of the human project on a trading desk. Dumb grunts might be clueless in the world where fortunes are made; still, they dedicated themselves to a purpose beyond the next payday. “I thought Goldman would emulate the Marines’ sense of camaraderie,” says Pantano. “But you know, it’s a business.” No wonder Pantano always seemed to keep a Marine buddy close at hand, even if he didn’t always fit in. “When we all got out, I floundered around for a couple of years, working dead-end jobs, drinking, really doing nothing with myself,” remembers Dejessie. “Here’s Ilario, he had a lot of money and [was] just surrounded by all these powerful, beautiful people, and I’m driving into the city in my little car and I’m looking like a bum, unshaven, hair all messed up.”
One day, Dejessie took Pantano aside. “I really don’t fit in here. Why do you even bother with me?” he asked.
Pantano told Dejessie, “These people are my friends, they mean something to me, but they’d probably try and take my job in a minute. I trust you with my life.”
Pantano left Goldman at age 27. Soon, he landed a job as an executive vice-president of the Shooting Gallery, which had been started by some Horace Mann alums. A year later, he left to start his own business, Filter Media, which did strategic consulting on emerging technologies. Cablevision and Sony became clients. “He feels he can accomplish anything he sets his mind to,” says Vladimir Edelman, who’d left the Shooting Gallery with Pantano to start Filter.
“You’re not going,” she said. “You can’t go.”
He replied, “I love you and I want you to come with me,” he said. “but this is what I’ve got to do.”
On September 11, 2001, Ilario Pantano was on his way to a meeting, walking along Fifth Avenue near 28th Street. He had curly hair to his collar. He looked, as his fiancée, Jill Chapman, would put it, like “an edgy, hunky, downtown guy.” Soon after he saw the towers collapse, as if he were a sleeper cell remotely activated, he hurried to a barbershop. When he showed up at the apartment he shared with Jill, his head was shaved Marine style.
“I thought he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says.
The tragedy at the Trade Center changed everything. “For him, September 11 was too much,” his father says. Little about his life seemed to make sense anymore. On September 16, Jill learned she was pregnant.
A few days after that, Pantano told a friend, Damon D’Amore, now a producer for Mark Burnett, “Never again.” D’Amore, who keeps a photo of Pantano on his mantel, noticed the new tattoo on his forearm. USMC, it said, and under that, SCOUT SNIPER.
Over the next months, Pantano seemed unhappy. “I was scared I was going to lose him,” says Jill, by now his wife. Jill, a rebellious teen, had been a model—Robert Mapplethorpe shot her for Italian Vogue—who once liked to date punk-rockers. By the time she met Pantano, she was a merchandiser pushing 30, a contentedly self-centered Upper East Sider who wanted to raise a family, an upwardly mobile one, she’d hoped.
Pantano’s consulting business, though, no longer held his attention. Lately, he’d been thinking about the Marines. He was 30. He’d have to get an age waiver, and now a waiver for a dependent.
“You’re not going,” Jill pleaded. “You can’t go.”