Pantano followed on the radio as events unfolded. “It was my worst moment in the whole war,” Pantano said later, “knowing that they were in trouble and that I was not there. I had sworn to take care of them, and there was nothing I could do. I felt like I had betrayed my men.”
Sergeant Daniel L. Coburn lives with his wife, Rae Anne, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, home to Camp Lejeune. Near the Marine base, the second largest in the country, Jacksonville seems to be either a giant going-out-of-business sale (pawnshops advertise WE BUY DRESS BLUES) or a low-end men’s club (tattoo parlors, gun stores, barbershops, and strip bars, one of which proclaims, WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS, OPEN AT NOON).
The Coburns live a fifteen-minute drive from the base, down a shady cul-de-sac. The evening I arrive, unannounced, Rae Anne’s babysitting charges are just leaving. The front door is open. One of the kids ushers me in. Coburn has, like everyone else, been ordered not to talk to the press. Pantano’s lawyer, though, has labeled him “a disgruntled employee,” as if this whole thing is small-minded office politics. It irks Coburn, and it irks Rae Anne, who knows her husband to be a sweet man. “Do we look disgruntled?” she asks impishly. She smiles. She holds their newest child, a 5-month-old son born just six days before the platoon returned from Iraq last October. Coburn is in his work uniform, camouflage pants, boots, green T-shirt with sergeant’s stripes on it.
In the living room, there’s an old comfortable blue couch, pale worn carpet. The TV is on. American Idol will be up soon. They’ve been looking forward to it all week.
This is their dream house. They moved in a few months ago. It needs work, but they’re happy to do it. It’s a house to grow in, room enough for their three kids, plus the one more they’d like to have, if everything goes okay. They’re nervous. Coburn, who’s from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has been in for nearly ten years. They make do on his sergeant’s salary, not quite $30,000 a year, including allowances, plus Rae Anne’s babysitting. They hope Coburn’s pay increases as he moves up in rank. If he moves up in rank.
Coburn has a pretty clear idea of himself. He’d like to transfer out of the infantry. He prefers to work on his own—“something that will complement my personality better,” he says. He wants the kind of job where, as he put it, “nobody’s going, ‘I want this done now.’ ” Coburn prefers a job where, as he explained, “I’m doing something because I want to do it. I don’t like to be told to do something when I’m already doing something.”
Standing in Coburn’s way are two negative evaluations of him initially written by Pantano. One covers a period before the incident. Another, the more severe, was written after. “In the unforgiving classroom of combat operations he was extended myriad opportunities to learn and to grow,” says that second evaluation. “Instead of developing, the opposite occurred and now he is solely responsible for managing the radio.”
Coburn sits straight as a chair. “It’s a career-ender,” he says. Coburn is trying to get the bad paper—both of the evaluations—removed from his file, which is possible, particularly if the judgment of the officer doing the evaluation or the circumstances surrounding it are in question. “They’re saying things about me that aren’t true,” Coburn says. “They all think that I’m the guy with a grudge on my shoulder,” says Coburn. “I got fired so I’m blaming him for something that didn’t happen. Whatever.”
He might have to hire a lawyer. He’d rather not. They’ve been saving for new windows. The lawyer money, he says, “that’s my windows.” Coburn’s 3-year-old climbs onto his lap. She wants something to eat. He shoos her sergeant-style, mock-gruff, which she ignores, continuing her singsongy complaint.
Lieutenant Ilario Pantano lives an hour south of Camp Lejeune, in Wilmington, North Carolina, a beachy suburb that Forbes called one of America’s best places to live and work. Pantano and his wife also live in their “dream house,” as Jill calls it. They moved in a few weeks ago. Pantano earns $50,018.40 a year, one of the odd details listed on the sheet charging him with murder. That won’t buy much New York real estate. But values are better in North Carolina, and they’ve been able to add some touches, like marble countertops in the kitchen, and also blast-proofing on all the windows.
Jill says it makes the place gloomier, but Pantano insisted. With all that’s going on—a Website out of Pakistan threatened his life—Pantano has gone on high alert. He installed triple redundant alarms with movement sensors, and he stocks an aggressive-looking weapon in most rooms. In their bedroom closet, there’s an M-4 rifle near a bag from the Chanel store. It makes Pantano feel better. “Like I’m doing something,” he says. “Like I’m in the fight.”
Jill is still a New Yorker, and still thinks about Manhattan. “We had a cushy life there,” she says. When she talks to her New York friends, they let her know they wouldn’t be able to handle her new life.
“What choice do I have?” she tells them.
We head to the backyard. Pantano hunts up cigars, those his father sent him in Iraq. Outside, the air is chilly. Beyond a row of azaleas is a wood-slat fence and then trees as far as you can see. It’s isolated here, almost lonely, the way the suburbs always are. It makes me think of something Pantano said about the killings. “It’s kind of weird—I did feel like I was alone,” he’d said.
Killing seems a hyperrational process now, all those pages written on the events of a minute or two. And yet, as Pantano once told me, “When you’re really in the shit, your brain is mush and some inner primal part of you kicks in.”
In a way, none of it matters. We sit in the dark, so still that Pantano’s motion detectors don’t kick in. The lights stay off. Jill smokes Marlboro Lights; she’s started again.
“You’re still here,” Pantano tells her.
“Well, I still love you,” she says, as if it might be involuntary. “I think actually our relationship is a lot stronger now.”
Some people close to Pantano say that all he wants is to return to the fight. Occasionally, Pantano even imagines a call from General Mattis himself: “Warrior, this is a fucking horrendous mistake and you’re good to go.” Pantano knows he will have to wait for his court-martial to see Mattis, who is on his witness list.
Even if he beats the charges, Pantano’s military career is finished. “Regardless of whether this thing goes away tomorrow,” he says, “the rest of my life has changed irrevocably.” The project now is to get through this, the humiliation, the betrayal, the threat. “I understand who this man is that’s done these things,” Pantano told me. “I understand how the world works. I’m certainly not naïve. Now there’s a machine working to get a conviction regardless of what the realities are.”
As a boy in a two-bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, he’d longed to be Lancelot. Now, he says, “I’m just trying to fucking shut these things down,” he says, though sometimes, he adds, “I can hardly fucking concentrate, I can hardly fucking see.”
A few stars are out, though the woods behind the property are impenetrable. Suddenly, Pantano gets up, walks toward the fence. “He heard a noise,” Jill says. And so Second Lieutenant Pantano, his battalion’s best, moves to the perimeter, stares into the dark woods, scouting for the enemy.