On the hard days, when she needed to feel close to him, she would search out his scent.
Patricia Young knew where to find it. Staff Sgt. Harry Young had lain with the couple’s young son and the boy’s teddy bear before he left for Iraq last year. For weeks after Harry shipped out, Patricia brought the bear to her face and breathed deeply, drawing her husband in.
When the scent faded, she took to wearing his T-shirts. Some days, she’d stare at his wedding ring, left at home in Freehold so he wouldn’t lose it overseas.
Still, it wasn’t Harry, the confident, sometimes silly man who had so persistently called her for a date 11 years ago that she finally said yes. Over the years, she’d fallen crazy in love.
“My friends and family tried to fill the void, but it’s not the same,” Patricia said. “Harry’s not just my partner. He’s my best friend. I miss my best friend. That’s been the hardest part.”
She recounted her story Friday afternoon in a crowded parking lot at Fort Dix, where family members prepared to welcome home members of New Jersey’s Army National Guard after a yearlong deployment. Shortly before 3 p.m., the citizen-soldiers arrived, marching in formation, then scattered to find their relatives in the bedlam.
In the tight embraces that followed, in the long kisses and silent, tearful reunions, hundreds of love stories played out.
Angelica Escribano, 25, who had worked so hard to stay strong during the year, melted into the arms of her boyfriend, Sgt. William Lopez, 26, of Passaic, and wept like a little girl. Friends since elementary school, they discovered two years ago they were in love.
Kelley Schooley, 28, buried her head in the chest of her husband, Spc. Bryan Schooley, 30, a Bergen County native who now lives in Pearl River, N.Y. The two married last summer, when Bryan Schooley cashed in a four-day pass during training at Fort Bliss, Texas. They have yet to go on a real honeymoon.
Jessica Geronimo and Spc. Jorge Morejon, both 24, kissed for nearly 10 minutes after finding each other in the crowd. He paused to introduce her to some of his friends from the Guard, then they kissed some more. The Allenhurst couple began dating six months ago, when he was home on leave.
“I made it a point to talk to her every day, but it’s been hard,” Morejon said. “You keep thinking of coming home, of getting a place together, of just being together.”
In all, some 820 members of the New Jersey guard arrived home Friday, marking the second wave of returning soldiers. The first 388 came home Monday. Hundreds more touched down yesterday, and another contingent is due back today. The deployment, totaling more than 2,800 soldiers, was the New Jersey guard’s biggest in six decades.
In the Fort Dix parking lot, Patricia Young looked left and right, turning in circles, trying to find Harry. The couple’s 3-year-old son, Cristian, helped her hold a large sign welcoming his dad home. Around them, Guard members in fatigues reconnected with loved ones, rocking from side to side as they hugged.
Patricia stood on tiptoe, straining to see over heads.
Two minutes passed. Three. People were everywhere. Patricia moved to the side, away from the throng, the easier to be spotted. She waited.
PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF
She was at a party on a Circle Line cruise along the Hudson when a man approached, asking for a dance. Patricia demurred. Soon enough, the man’s friend came along. He introduced himself as Harry.
They shared a dance, and she gave him her number, but Patricia wasn’t all that interested. She was a career woman, a successful publicist and event planner in Manhattan enjoying what she called her “Sex in the City” years.
“I was all about martinis, girlfriends and my job,” she said.
He called for two months.
“I kept dodging him, and it was my sister who finally said, ‘Take the call,'” Patricia said.
On their first date, they went to a party, but they never made it inside. Instead, they talked outside for hours. Patricia, uninterested in a serious relationship, was smitten.
Harry wasn’t afraid to be goofy and had a knack for making her laugh. Over time, Patricia came to believe she could make a life with him.
Then came a rough patch. For a year, they went their separate ways. She was down in Maryland, visiting her sister during a family party, when Harry appeared, unbidden and unexpected.
He gathered her relatives into one room and began to speak earnestly.
“He said we’d been through a lot together and that he’d found a soulmate and a life partner,” Patricia said.
In front of everyone, Harry asked her to be his wife.
Through tears, she said yes.
They married on the island of Curacao on Oct. 7, 2006. Shortly after their return, Patricia learned she was pregnant.
When the Guard announced the call-up of troops from New Jersey, it was hardly unexpected. The war in Iraq had been going on since 2003. But knowing didn’t make it any easier. Harry, 39, a recruiter for a security company, would put his career on hold. And Patricia, 37, would be left alone, a feeling familiar to all military husbands and wives.
It took some getting used to. There were plumbing problems and car problems — things Harry typically attended to. Cristian was working through the Terrible Twos, and Patricia didn’t have Harry as a backstop. Mostly, though, she missed her friend.
At night, she’d be watching some silly reality TV show, and she’d turn to where he usually sat, half expecting to see him there laughing with her. She missed hunting for exotic recipes with him. She missed going to the movies with him.
Then there was the worry, constant and nagging, that he could be hurt or killed in Iraq. She knew that for a while he was at Camp Bucca, a Baghdad detention center, but he later moved on to another post and was not allowed to be too specific about the location. Even if what he was doing was dangerous, she knew, he wouldn’t tell her.
They talked on the phone twice a week, and she insisted he keep his cell phone on so she could send him text messages any time.
There would be no mid-year reunion. Harry gave up his leave so younger Guardsmen could get more time with their families. He asked her first. She understood.
She took solace in his letters, beautiful and romantic.
“He told me how much he loved me, how much he loved our son,” Patricia said.
GOOD TO BE HOME
And now he was there.
Harry emerged from the crowd in the Fort Dix lot and approached his wife and son, bending to a knee as Cristian charged him. He scooped the boy up, placing a hand on the back of his head, and held him tight, whispering in his ear.
Patricia joined the hug, kissing her husband, tears forming in her eyes.
She squeezed his arm. He’d grown more muscular in Iraq.
Harry marveled at his boy, so much taller than when he’d left. Able to say his colors in Spanish. Handsome.
“My family — that was the hardest part of being over there,” he said.
Harry turned to Patricia. He’d missed her smile, he said.
“She kept me strong,” he said. “She’s my best friend.”
Published in The Star-Ledger May 30, 2009