Pantano sometimes explained his desire to serve in terms of his kid-to-be. “It’s about Daddy doing the right thing,” he said. “I don’t want someone else to fight my fight.”
Jill was pretty sure she’d never met anyone in the military. “If you’d told me I would end up married to a Marine, I would’ve said, ‘You’re on crack,’” she says. He sat her down. “If you want to be with me,” he said, “this is what I’ve got to do.” He wanted to rejoin, which meant uprooting her, cutting her income, leaving her for months at a time. “If you can’t understand that, sorry,” he said. “I love you, and I want you to come with me . . . I have to do this.”
“Warrior” might once have seemed a piece of teenage identity theater. It now felt like who he most wanted to be. “I always missed the Marines, always loved it,” he confessed. “September 11 gave me another chance.”
“I was not complete,” he told his wife.
“I fucking hate you, you son of a bitch,” Jill said when he told her, and then added, “You owe me.”
By nature, pantano was probably more intense than most Marines. Or, perhaps, he was just more than most—more intelligent, more articulate, more driven, more magnetic. If in New York he could seem the out-of-towner, in Iraq he played as very New York. “Flamboyant, passionate,” said one officer. Even in Iraq, he read the Sunday New York Times, which his mother mailed him. Given access to a TV in Iraq, Pantano switched on a fashion channel, offering running commentary. “It was almost like we were dealing with a celebrity,” said one Marine.
Pantano had trained to reenter the Marines at Crunch with 6 A.M. spin classes. During his officer’s-training course that led to, as Pantano put it, a Ph.D. in killology, he seemed an old man—at 31 he was the second oldest. But Pantano excelled. He was particularly good at making snap decisions on less-than-total information—and was voted the class leader. At one point, officers discussed what motivated Marines. Pantano was sure he knew. “Love,” he said, to everyone’s embarrassment. “The thing that gets you through the fight is the love of your brothers.”
Commissioned a second lieutenant, Pantano was assigned to command the third platoon of Easy Company, Second Battalion, Second Marines, one of the weaker platoons. Many of his 40 Marines were young, just months out of high school. To Pantano, they were “the most beautiful boys that you could imagine. You feel like you can be their father.”
“Warrior,” Pantano called them, or “War Hero,” and pushed them. “Force of will”—that’s what makes Marines, Pantano believes. He had them do push-ups while wearing gas masks to restrict their oxygen and simultaneously reciting phrases in Arabic. He’d purchased an Arabic CD and a copy of the Koran from Barnes & Noble—since their mission was to win hearts and minds. When they went to Iraq, in March 2004, a year after the fall of Baghdad, they expected to be like beat cops, forceful if trouble started but otherwise useful members of a community. Pantano familiarized them with the “wave tactic”—it meant waving to the population.
At the same time, most Marines noticed that in any threatening situation, Pantano had an extra setting. It wasn’t just that he was “passionate, thorough, dedicated,” as one officer explained, it was that he had these qualities “to a degree that’s almost unattainable by most people.” And his intensity rarely shut down. Said the officer who worked with Pantano: “If there was the most minute opportunity for danger, he would take every measure possible to eliminate that threat. He goes to the furthest extent to do the job right, and that’s something that I couldn’t say for anybody else.”
Pantano attempted to impart his outlook to his boys. “If you don’t pay attention,” he told them, then “somebody comes over that wall, [and] he’s going to kill you and me, and every fucking person in here, and the next time your mother sees you, you’re going to be laid out in a fucking pile of bodies with your fucking clothes stripped.”
Before they shipped out of Camp Lejeune, their home base in North Carolina, Pantano threw the platoon a party in the barracks lounge. Pantano bought beer, though some probably weren’t old enough to drink. Later, he’d promise their parents to bring them home safe. He’d also show them the HBO movie about September 11, to motivate them. “My duty, as is the duty of these other Marines,” he’d explain to the BBC, “is quite frankly to export violence to the four corners of the globe to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.” But that night, the order of business was camaraderie. Before they broke up, Pantano danced. He’d always been a wild, free dancer. He put 50 Cent on—“Fi-ty Cent!” his young Marines shouted. “The L.T. rolls to Fi-ty Cent!”—and made a corporal dance with him. His platoon appreciated his style. “We totally respect this guy,” said Lance Corporal Chris Johnson. “I think all of us do.”
Iraq would prove a challenging climate for Marine idealism—and not merely because the temperature reached 138 degrees. Pantano had a wave at the ready, candy in his pocket. He played soccer with Iraqi kids. There was no better salesman than Pantano—“People buy what he’s selling,” says a former business partner. Especially when he believes in the product. And when it came to American glory, Pantano was good to go. “If we can bring some comfort, some democracy, some opportunity,” he told a BBC crew in an unbroadcast interview in Iraq. “Maybe they won’t hate us so much.”
The Marine commander in Iraq, Major General James Mattis, echoed those sentiments, telling his troops that willing Iraqis would find “no better friend” than Marines. Of course, insurgent Iraqis could expect, as Mattis put it, “no worse enemy.”
It didn’t take long for Marines with any sense to concentrate on the enemy part. On March 31, 2004, news arrived about the four American contractors killed in Fallujah. Their mutilated bodies were dragged and then jubilantly hung from a bridge. The next day, Pantano’s platoon helped officially take control of the Sunni triangle.