By Laura M. LeveringSeptember 24, 2010
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. It was two servicemembers, and 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 in Afghanistan, March 4, when the Stryker he was riding in swerved to miss an oncoming vehicle and rolled over. He was a member of 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
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. She never could have imagined it would be the last time she would hear 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 their children about their father and ensure he continues to be a part of their lives. Judah, her eldest, is 3, hardly old enough to understand death. 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 to Arlington National Cemetery, where their father is buried, several times a year.
"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, and 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 was attending what would have been Tony's redeployment ceremony. She could have avoided it, but instead chose to confront it...the undeniable certainty that while hundreds welcomed their loved ones home, she would be leaving without hers.
"I hadn't cried that hard since receiving him at Dover, and even then, I was in so much shock that it paled slightly in comparison to this raw and horrific reality," Paci said.
"I sat in front with another widow from the battalion, and I waited until the room cleared... I had actually looked for him among the Soldiers, as some part of my mind simply refused to believe that this was happening to me.
"Once it became clear and quiet, I was able to walk away. Almost instantly, I felt the load on my shoulders lighten. I had faced it-my worst nightmare. I had stared it down and confronted the painful reality. Somehow, as I knew it would, it had given me a bit of peace and a lot of strength."
Paci hoped that amidst her grief she could be a ray of light to redeploying Soldiers, many of whom are also grieving.
"A lot of these guys hadn't even really dealt with this yet, but they will, so I'm almost a step ahead of them," she said of Tony's fellow Soldiers. "I wanted to make sure that none of them had 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. 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.
"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.
"It feels like home now," she said of Washington. "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 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, 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.