|Pantano playing with son Sandro in the backyard of their new home in North Carolina. (Photo Credit: Katy Grannan)|
“I was an idealist until I started seeing our guys in bags,” says Pantano.
Ali Baba ambushed them constantly, fired mortars at their camps, and buried bombs by roads. Pantano’s platoon found a bomb at a girls’ elementary school, set to detonate at its opening ceremony. To add to the danger, you never knew which Iraqis to trust. “A lot of the people we ended up handing candy out to were, a couple of weeks later, shooting at us,” says Staff Sergeant Jason Glew, Pantano’s second-in-command.
One day, Pantano’s platoon visited Iraqis in the midst of building a mosque near Fallujah. The bricks had been paid for by American taxpayers. Still, a jeering kid flipped the finger at the departing Marines. “I’ll be seeing you, sweetheart,” a frustrated Pantano muttered to himself and patted his M-16.
On April 11, 2004, Easter Sunday, most of the platoon responded to the ambush of an Army convoy, their first time to pull the trigger. Fire came from two directions over a six-mile stretch of road. Pantano was horrified to see ambulances shot up by the enemy, dripping blood. Marines are trained to charge an ambush. “The only thing that will defeat aggression is more aggression,” Pantano says. “You can’t negotiate with someone trying to kill you. You have to kill them first.” It turned into a six-hour battle, with running firefights through the streets of Latifiyah.
Later, Pantano would tell New York friends, “Iraq makes Apocalypse Now look like day camp.”
When Pantano’s platoon had arrived in Iraq the previous month, Sergeant Coburn had been in charge of one of its three squads. “Coburn was a nice guy,” said Staff Sergeant Glew, the senior sergeant. Coburn had been a Marine for close to nine years, but leading men in war probably wasn’t what best suited his talents. “He seemed kind of weak,” said a squad member, who recalled Coburn being nonplussed at incoming mortars.
To Coburn, the problem was mainly a style issue. He didn’t like to yell. “In the infantry, you get looked down upon if you’re not a yeller,” says Coburn. Among officers, though, Coburn’s problem was also one of judgment. His performance was widely considered marginal—a company captain said it; other lieutenants in the company knew it. Sergeant Glew used the word “incompetent.” And Pantano hovered nearby, micromanaging.
“He’d always ask me,” says Coburn, referring to Pantano, “ ‘Hey, how you doing? You okay? Any problems?’ ”
Leave me alone! thought Coburn.
Listening to Pantano and Coburn, it could seem as if they were fighting in different wars. Coburn’s war, like his personality, was milder. “We’re over there to get them on our side, not to show our muscle and smack them around,” he says even today. “That was our mission: Go over there, shake hands, give candy to the kids, try to help out the Iraqi people.”
Coburn didn’t really get Pantano and his 9/11 fervor. “One of those thespian-type people,” Coburn says. To Coburn, it almost seemed that the enemy materialized only when Pantano was around, as if perhaps his zeal attracted them.
Coburn wasn’t entirely wrong. On patrol, Pantano would sometimes fire in the air to draw the enemy out, then fight his way back. “Often you’re walking a beat, getting hit, responding,” Pantano says. “In essence, [you have] to be the walking ambush . . . You almost ask to be attacked.”
Not Coburn. Coburn wasn’t in a firefight in Iraq. He doubted he’d killed anybody. He thought he fired his weapon once. “We were taking fire, and I just tried to aim at . . . tried to find a target to shoot at,” he says. “I just started shooting.”
One day on patrol, Coburn’s squad stopped for a break. There’d been enemy activity in the area. His guys were taking off their helmets within sight of unsearched buildings. “Men follow men into combat because they believe that they can keep them alive,” Pantano believes, and kind of flipped out. “Pantano is going to do it right,” explains one officer. “He has no sympathy for someone who’s not up there. He doesn’t take it easy on anybody.”
Pantano called the squad in. Why hadn’t Coburn posted security? Coburn told him the buildings had been checked yesterday. “You’re fucking fired,” Pantano recalls telling Coburn. “We’re parked in the middle of a kill box,” he told the squad. “It’s a miracle that we’re not all in a bag right now.”
Pantano and Sergeant Glew talked it over. “We could have very easily told the company commander he was incompetent as a sergeant and requested a reduction in rank,” says Glew. “We gave him the benefit of the doubt because he still gave his all, he still had good intentions.” So Coburn was reassigned. He might not be a warrior, an emasculating fact in this tribe; still, he was smart. He’d be the radio operator, tagging along with the medic and Pantano.
Coburn would later say that he was transferred to radio operator to help out with a platoon problem. “I went to the radio ’cause . . . I knew what I was doing on the radio,” Coburn says. “If I got fired . . . it didn’t sound like it to me.” But every Marine knows that radio operator is a job two or three pay grades below sergeant.
Toward 3 P.M. on April 15, 2004, a call summoned Pantano’s platoon to a modest house down a dirt road near Mahmudiya, which, according to intelligence reports, had been taken over by Ali Baba.