Some called Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano the "preppy marine," a charismatic Gulf War veteran-turned-Wall Street broker who cut his long locks and reenlisted in the Marines after several close friends perished in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks.
Legions of supporters say the 33-year-old served with honor. "I'd have him for my son," says Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina, one of Lieutenant Pantano's staunchest defenders.
Marine prosecutors have a different view of the officer's professional conduct. A year after he shot two terror suspects in the back during a tense search mission in Iraq, and laid a scrawled sign with a unit motto - "No better friend, no worse enemy" - on their bodies, Pantano this week is facing a military version of a grand jury at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on charges of premeditated murder.
The Pantano saga has become the first post-9/11 case of alleged murder in combat to come before the military justice system. Haunting to some for its echoes of proceedings that followed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the case is also dredging up difficult questions about the morality of combat and what can happen to soldiers when the fog of war clears.
"Just being on a battlefield isn't a complete license to do anything," says Michael Belknap, a professor at California Western School of Law and author of "The Vietnam War on Trial." "After all, the two people that he killed were shot in the back, and that certainly, most of the time, is not going to put the shooter in a good position."
The two men - Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Ahmead Hanjil - were stopped in their car as they were leaving an area in Mahmudiyah where homes were being searched. At first they were handcuffed. When reports came that soldiers had found explosives in the area, Pantano removed the handcuffs and ordered the men to search their own car.
"They quickly pivoted their bodies toward each other. They did this simultaneously, while speaking in muffled Arabic. I thought they were attacking me and I decided to fire my M-16A4 service rifle in self-defense," Pantano has said in his official statement. But some witnesses said he may have emptied 45 rounds into the men before leaving what fellow marines called a "death card." If convicted, Pantano could face the death penalty, though that's unlikely, experts say.
Already, the case has stirred a fiery debate about the murky nature of the Middle Eastern battlefield. For three weeks, Mr. Jones has spoken almost nightly about Pantano on the House floor. He has written two letters to President Bush asking for intervention. Pantano's cause has also been taken up by conservative talk-show hosts such as Michael Savage.
They claim that the prosecution implicitly limits soldiers' ability to make split-second life-and-death decisions - which affects morale and recruitment - all in the name of a 33-year-old who left his cushy stateside existence to take on terrorists in the dusty heart of Babylonia.
Jones has met with Pantano three times, including at a barbecue fundraiser near Camp Lejeune. Pantano's mother, Merry, has designed a website to gather support for the former Goldman Sachs energy trader, who, when he reenlisted, was making a six-figure income at his new company, Filter Media. He grew up on the streets of New York and earned a scholarship to the tony Horace Mann prep school. He and his wife have two young children.
"I do not believe that Lieutenant Pantano should be charged with premeditated murder for doing his job," says Jones. "This sends a horrible message to young men and women in uniform.... Those who have never walked in a marine's shoes should think long and hard before judging him."
After this week's hearing, Marine Maj. Mark Winn will decide whether to recommend a court-martial. Those who study ideas of America's "just war" theory in the Middle East say that if Pantano is court-martialed the jury that judges him will be appropriate: fellow combat-veteran marines.
"There's such a narrow line in those tense situations between an unnecessary use of force and self-defense that it almost defies anybody to draw that line precisely - and that's really where a court-martial can come in," says Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Roy Gutman, author of "Crimes of War: What the public should know."
The parallels to My Lai aren't so much in the action on the ground as in the reaction back home, historians say.
In that case, Lt. William Calley of Charlie Company was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the killing of 535 Vietnamese civilians. Both sides saw him as a scapegoat, and the case - and charges of coverups - came to color the mythology of the Vietnam War. Now, there are lingering questions about a coverup in the Pantano case as well, since Pantano was once cleared of any wrongdoing by his immediate superiors and even received a glowing promotion report - all amid the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal.
"What disturbs me frankly about what Congressman Jones has had to say is it's very reminiscent of the kind of statements that were made by a lot of fairly ill-informed politicians with respect to My Lai," says Mr. Belknap. "A lot of this is starting to sound like echoes of that case."
Insurgents' infiltration of civilian populations have played into both cases. Although Calley was convicted, another defendant in My Lai, Capt. Ernest Medina, was found not guilty. Pantano's self-defense argument, say some, mirrors Medina's. Medina shot an unarmed woman who was lying on the ground, but testified that she was in the process of getting up and had a hand grenade. "To claim self-defense, you don't actually have to be in danger, you just have to reasonably believe you are," says Belknap.
There are deeper implications for the military as well. Around the world, amid satellite-borne propaganda campaigns, the case promises to affect how American soldiers are perceived by locals on the battlefield - one of the main struggles in Iraq.
"The [military] has tremendous incentives to be at least perceived as being fair and just," says Andrew Rehfeld, who studies morality and war at Washington University in St. Louis. "Being seen as aiming only at bad guys and not at any old person, they will garner more approval."