Wrongly accused of murder in Iraq, a former Marine looks for redemption on the campaign trail

Will Rahn | Senior Editor

Ilario Pantano, a former Marine who was wrongly accused of murdering two Iraqis in 2004, is looking to become the first Republican to represent North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District since Reconstruction.

Pantano has what might be the most unusual resume of any candidate running in 2012. The son of an Italian immigrant, he was raised in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, then a rough-and-tumble neighborhood that lived up to its name. He attended the prestigious Horace Mann prep school on a half-scholarship, and shocked classmates when he left for the Marine Corps after graduation.

“I would venture to say no one has ever enlisted in the Marines in the history of Horace Mann,” one classmate told New York magazine in 2005.

After serving in Operation Desert Storm, Pantano returned to New York and worked as a bartender as he made his way through New York University. He worked for a time at Goldman Sachs, but after his service in the Marines, he found the life of an investment banker boring.

“In 1998, I made a decision to walk away from Goldman and a lifestyle that wasn’t for me,” Pantano told The Daily Caller. “I didn’t want to be trading Enron and AIG. That’s not what I wanted to do with my life.”

Not yet 30 and already financially successful , he left to work for a technology company founded by Horace Mann classmates before launching his own media startup. He became engaged to his girlfriend, Jill, a former model, and prepared to settle down.

On September 11th, 2001, Pantano was in Manhattan. “I was on the street wondering why my cell phone wasn’t working, noticing the fire engines and the police cars blazing downtown,” he told TheDC. “But in the bustle that is New York, I was focused on me and my universe. I was caught up with my business and my job, as so many of us were. And in the moment that I heard a car door ajar with the radio playing, I think it was Howard Stern, somebody saying another plane has gone into the World Trade Center… I heard it and it literally snapped me out of my confusion.”

“I literally just had to turn my head,” Pantano said, “And there, not even two miles away, were the towers burning. And what was so amazing — the image that has never left me — is the millions of pieces of paper floating in the jet stream. They twinkle like giant dandelions, they had like a glow of all of this paper and the jet stream around them as they burned. … I knew right away we were at war.”

Pantano also knew what he had to do. Still in good shape from running marathons and Ironman triathalons, he got a crew cut, took his old uniform out of storage and prepared to re-enlist in the Marines.

“My wife burst into tears because we were getting married in five weeks,” he said. “And all of a sudden everything changed for everybody. Praise God, I made it home. I wasn’t one of the three thousand faces on the millions of fliers that littered Manhattan for months. I wasn’t one of those guys who was missing. I was home, but on some level some part of me was missing. Part of me was lost that day.”

Pantano requested, and was granted, an age waiver, and a waiver for a dependent, to re-enlist. A sergeant when he first left the Marines after the Gulf War, he was now commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to lead an infantry platoon. He expected a lot from the Marines under his command but quickly earned their respect as a thoughtful, capable and passionate officer.

“If there was the most minute opportunity for danger, he would take every measure possible to eliminate that threat,” one officer who served with Pantano told New York magazine. “He goes to the furthest extent to do the job right, and that’s something that I couldn’t say for anybody else.”

To motivate the 40 young Marines under his command, Pantano showed them an HBO documentary about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “My duty, as is the duty of these other Marines,” he told the BBC, “is, quite frankly, to export violence to the four corners of the globe to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.” He arrived with his platoon in Iraq in March 2004, a year after the fall of Baghdad.

On April 15, 2004, Pantano and his men were dispatched to investigate a house outside Mahmudiya that intelligence indicated was being occupied by insurgents. Wary of being drawn into an ambush, he sent a dozen men to raid the house while the rest guarded the flanks. Suddenly a white car approached. Pantano’s Marines fired warning shots, and the two unarmed men inside the vehicle surrendered.

After the two Iraqis had been detained, Pantano dispatched one of his Marines to inspect their vehicle. His troops found a sizeable weapons cache inside the house and, taking no chances, Pantano ordered the captured Iraqis to thoroughly re-inspect the vehicle. Accompanied by two other Marines, both with their backs turned to him, Pantano supervised the Iraqis as they looked for weapons. Believing that the men — who ignored orders to stop whispering and then turned on him abruptly — had decided to charge him, Pantano opened fire, killing both.

One of the men with his back turned, a sergeant who had clashed with Pantano in the past, filed a report claiming Pantano had unjustly executed the captured Iraqis. Pantano was relieved of his command and faced charges that, were he convicted, could have resulted in the death penalty.

“It’s amazing to face murder charges in the high intensity combat in which we were in,” Pantano told TheDC. “It’s like getting a speeding ticket at the Indy 500.”

Eventually the case against Pantano fell apart. No one could corroborate the sergeant’s allegations and the evidence, including autopsies of the dead Iraqis, seemed to exonerate him of any wrongdoing.

The military dismissed the charges in May 2005, but not before Pantano underwent what he feels was unfair treatment from some media outlets. “This was in the wake of [the] Abu Ghraib [torture scandal], and they were looking for a scapegoat,” he said.

With his record finally clear, Pantano, ever the warrior, was itching to return to active duty. “I was good to go, I was ready to get back in the fight,” he said. “But something had happened in the course of all of that. … I was the first time the American public, and more importantly the Iraqi media, had the name of an American soldier that was involved in killing terrorists. This was the first time it had happened, and so as a result there were some unique threats that materialized against my family and I.”

One such threat, Pantano said, came from a Pakistani website. He said another caused the FBI “to reach out to my local sheriff’s office to tell me they had found a cell in Ohio that had information on my mother and my wife and I.”

“Can you afford to go and strap it on for another eight months as a gunfighter when your family is in the crosshairs?” he asked. “The answer for me was ‘no.’”

Feeling unable to rejoin his fellow Marines overseas, Pantano did what he felt was the next best thing and became a deputy sheriff in North Carolina. “I decided that if I can’t protect the country, then I’m going to protect my community,” he said.

While working in law enforcement, Pantano wrote a memoir about his experiences in Iraq and contemplated running for office. He made the leap last year in a long-shot run against Rep. Mike McIntyre, a long-serving Democratic incumbent, and came within just a few points of winning.

This year, Pantano is challenging McIntyre once again in North Carolina’s recently redrawn 7th District. Republicans now have the upper hand in the district and, should Pantano win the GOP primary in May, there’s a strong chance he’ll be its congressman-elect next November.

Should he be elected to office, Pantano said he will focus on economic issues he believes are vital to national security. He said he embraced Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” when he ran in 2010, despite the political complications he knew that support would cause him.

“Believe me, nobody was more relieved to see the Republicans adopt [Ryan’s] plan as the GOP budget for 2012” he said. “I feel that we’ve come a long way, baby.”

Before he can go to Washington and vote for Ryan’s budget, however, Pantano will have to defeat David Rouzer, a tough and well-funded primary opponent. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is staying out of the race, at least for now, and has praised both candidates for their “dedication and experience.” Strong support from the NRCC was a big help for Pantano last year, and without their fundraising muscle, his victory is not assured.

“We made a decision to launch again in February knowing full well there was going to be some different dynamics than 2010,” Pantano told TheDC. He added that the GOP’s takeover of the House has robbed some of the sense of urgency his race enjoyed last November, and that otherwise friendly donors are now concentrating on taking back the Senate and White House in 2012.

“We knew there was going to be some real challenges coming in on the fundraising side,” he said. Still, given his strong grassroots support and the national attention he received in the last election, Pantano remains optimistic.

“We have a machine,” he said. “And we’re working to continue cultivating that machine.”

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