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

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.”