By Laura M. LeveringJuly 2, 2010
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - The news came loud, but unclear. Erica Paci was awakened by vigorous knocking at her front door. Her heart pounding, she jumped out of bed and ran to see who was there. Met by two service members, a military spouse's worst nightmare suddenly became Paci's reality.
"I fell to my knees and was just begging Jesus for it not to be true ... And then I quickly snapped out of it, because I have three babies to take care of."
Paci learned that her husband, Sgt. Anthony "Tony" Paci, was killed March 4 when the Stryker he was riding in swerved to miss an oncoming vehicle and rolled over in Afghanistan. He was a member of 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Paci had spoken to her husband just hours before. In his usual manner, he blew a kiss and assured her he would call again in the morning. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined it would be the last time she heard his voice.
"I can honestly say I believed that he was coming home," Paci said. "People even promised me. They told me I had no reason to worry."
Since Tony's death, Paci has been pouring herself into keeping Tony's memory alive while trying to maintain a positive outlook. One of her top priorities is to teach the children about their father and ensure he continues to be a part of their lives.
Judah, her eldest, will be 3 years old next month. Hardly old enough understand at such a young age, Paci said she is preserving all of Tony's belongings for Judah and her daughters to see when they're older.
She also plans to take them several times a year to Arlington National Cemetery, where their father is buried.
"I want them always to be familiar with their dad as a hero," Paci said. "I don't ever want that to be something we shy away from because it's painful."
Paci's hardly one to run from pain and fear; she faces both head on in a variety of ways. Participating weekly in remembrance runs and learning how to ride a motorcycle are two of them.
"For me, (running) is a positive way of honoring him while taking care of me by working out my anxiety," she said.
As for learning to ride a motorcycle, Paci said it's a goal she plans to accomplish once she can focus more clearly. She purchased a bike for Tony just two weeks before his death.
"He was really looking forward to me riding on that bike with him," she said. "I need to do what we were going to do when he got back for him, but I also need to put it off a little bit before I take on such a potentially dangerous thing."
Paci's most difficult goal is attending what would be Tony's redeployment ceremony. She could avoid it, but instead is choosing to confront it ... The undeniable certainty that while hundreds will be welcoming their loved ones home, she will be leaving without hers.
"I need to face the painful reality so that I can work through the negative emotions that come with it and get beyond them," she said. "Otherwise, I'm going to sit and stew in my jealousy and pain every time I see a 'welcome home' sign."
Paci also hopes that amidst her grief she can be a ray of light to redeploying Soldiers, many of whom are also grieving.
"A lot of these guys haven't even really dealt with this yet, but they will, so I'm almost a step ahead of them," she said. "I want to make sure that none of them have a heavy heart worrying about me, because I'm going to be OK ... We will all be OK eventually."
Although Paci would never have wished for a life without Tony, she is thankful for ongoing support from the Army, friends and strangers alike - so much so that she decided to buy a house and settle nearby.
"I'm so lucky to have the Army and all these caring organizations and wonderful strangers sending my children beautiful things to remember their dad," Paci said. "The support has been amazing, beautiful ... really touching."
Though she came from New Jersey and Tony, Maryland, Paci said their adopted state of Washington was the source of her happiest family memories. She plans to remain in the Pacific Northwest.
"It feels like home now," she said. "I don't want to go backwards, I want to stay here and go forward."
A new home is one of many "gifts" Tony has given Paci. Aside from love, the greatest, she said, was Tony's ability to teach her to have a "glass half full" attitude.
"Whenever I'd be down in the dumps or complaining about something, he'd say, 'Erica, it could always be worse' ... I never realized how profound that was until now."
Paci hopes others will hear about her story and strive to live each day as if it was their last, as she and Tony did.
"We told each other every opportunity we had that we loved each other," she said. "I have three and a half years of beautiful memories that have made me a better person and made my heart more full."
Striving to keep her composure through tears, Paci said each day remains a challenge. The hardest time of day comes at night when the kids are asleep and she feels most alone.
"I just keep clinging to God, and my comforting thought is, 'There's nothing I could have done to stop this,'" she said. "None of this was in my power, and he is in heaven now."
At the end of the day, she still manages to see the glass as half full.
"I'm so thankful that if I had to go through something this awful in my life," she said, "that it could've been in this capacity where my husband is (regarded as) a hero."
Laura M. Levering is a reporter with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's weekly newspaper, the Northwest Guardian.