NEW PORT RICHEY — He was her home. Tara Nelson could exist on her own and go to classes and out with friends, but when she was with him, she felt like she could finally breathe, as though she were exhaling a tightness in her chest she didn't know was there.
Now he's gone and Nelson doesn't know what to do. She never had a Plan B.
When she got the call in the wee hours Sunday that her fiance, Spc. P.J. Miller, 23, died in an explosion in Baghdad, she stopped breathing and lost consciousness. An ambulance took her to a hospital in Gainesville, where she is a student at the University of Florida. She was sedated and monitored for two days. Now Nelson, 26, goes between sobbing and a glazed look, her eyes flat.
"He was perfect," she said softly.
They met when they worked as lifeguards at the YMCA in Trinity. Nelson was 19. Miller was 16, a junior at James W. Mitchell High School on a work-study program. Nelson thought he was gorgeous; blond hair, blue eyes. He was a wrestler, the same height as she is, about 5 foot 5, but he was all muscle. And intelligent, a favorite of his teachers for his self-motivation and work ethic.
"It was an honor to have him as a student," said Mary Turin, who oversees the work-study program at Mitchell. She learned about his death Wednesday morning and pulled his old papers from her files and cried.
Miller's parents divorced and he lived with his mother, Kim, and younger brother, Michael. Miller became the man of the house and always worked, in addition to school and sports.
His father, Patrick Miller — who has remarried and had another son, Taylor, who is now 4 — was not in Miller's life. This is something too terrible for his dad to bear.
They had not spoken for six years. Both waited for the other to be the first to make contact.
Now he is learning about the man his son — named Patrick, after him — became.
"I'm very, very proud," he said, tears running down his cheeks. His guilt is overwhelming.
No one saw the military in Miller's future. This was a young man who was going to be a surgeon. He graduated from the University of South Florida with a biology degree. He called himself a Buddhist and would take bugs outside rather than kill them. He took notes on recipes while watching the Food Network.
Miller also had a bit of a wild side. He and his friends hatched plans for selling beer kegs over the Internet or becoming bounty hunters. He played paintball and liked martial arts.
"He was such a funny person," said Roman Pakskin, 23, a friend from Tarpon Springs.
In all his years with Nelson, he never raised his voice to her — not when she wanted pancakes in the middle of the night or when she woke him at 2 a.m., said she couldn't sleep and asked him to go running with her. Miller would just say, "Okay, what kind of pancakes do you want?" or he would lace up his shoes and head into the dark with Nelson.
Out of the blue last March, he told Nelson and his mother that he was going to enlist in the Army. Nelson, who plans on being a veterinarian, said part of his reasoning was to secure a future for them: The Army could pay for medical school. Miller also thought it was his duty, as an American.
"He had the white knight syndrome," Nelson said. "If he saw a little old lady trying to cross the street, he would pull his car to the side of the road and get out to help her."
Miller kept asking Nelson to marry him. She told him yes, but not right now. "We are young," she said. "We have so much time." She wanted to wait until he was home for good. He bought her a delicate engagement ring, a band of white gold with diamonds.
He was sent to Kansas and last September to Iraq. In e-mails and phone calls to Nelson and his mother, he wouldn't say anything to worry them. He only said he couldn't wait to come home. One time, Nelson heard explosions in the background. Miller told her, "Those hit the building next door. Don't worry."
Miller was supposed to come home on Friday for a 30-day leave. He was taking Nelson on a cruise to the Bahamas. During the cruise, he was going to surprise her with a wedding. He had it all set with the ship's captain.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Nelson was in a funeral home with her fiance's parents. She looked like a wild animal that had just woken after being tranquilized and moved to a new home; every look she had said, "This is not where I am supposed to be."
She crumpled against a wall and pressed her hands to her face. All she could think of was how silly she was, believing time went on forever, when all she wants now is to be his wife.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds and staff writer Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.
. FAST FACTS
Spc. Patrick Joseph Miller
Arrangements have not been finalized, but they will be with Thomas B. Dobies Funeral Home, 9944 Hudson Ave. in Hudson. The Web site is www.dobiesfuneralhome.com and the number is (727) 868-4441.