Two-hundred soldiers stood in formation, ready to meet their new commanding officer. Friends and family filled the chairs for the ceremony.
All but one.
Capt. Erik Anthes reserved it for a fellow soldier, a man he hadn't seen since high school back in New Port Richey, but promised he would never forget.
As Anthes snapped salutes and accepted the responsibility for Company E, 1st Battalion of the storied 16th Infantry Regiment which dates back to the Civil War, he felt awash with emotion. How coincidental — no, how fitting — he thought as he glanced toward the empty chair and the sign taped on it: Spc. Patrick "P.J.'' Miller, March 29, 2008.
That was the day a roadside bomb exploded next to the young soldier's vehicle in Baghdad, one week before he was scheduled to return home. His outfit: the 16th Infantry Regiment.
Anthes, 26, assumed his new role on Aug. 30 at the regiment's headquarters in Fort Riley, Kan. At night, when he went home to be with his wife, Kelli, and their 5-month-old daughter, Reagan, he changed from his uniform. He didn't remove the bracelet that bears P.J. Miller's name.
"I never take it off,'' Anthes said. "I never forget.''
They met as boys on the junior varsity football team at River Ridge High. Anthes still has a picture somebody took of them sitting on the bench together. They lost touch when Miller moved to Mitchell High, where he graduated in 2003. He earned a biology degree at the University of South Florida and wanted to become a doctor. He thought joining the Army would help him pay for medical school.
"And, he wanted to serve his country,'' recalled his fiancee, Tara Nelson. "I wish I had steered him away from it, but we always supported each other.''
Anthes graduated from River Ridge and the University of Central Missouri and became a second lieutenant. After basic training, he deployed to Ramadi in central Iraq. A year later, as he returned home and his mother picked him up at the airport, "I felt like I was at the Super Bowl. I was very high that all the guys in my platoon had made it home. And then …''
Just a few days earlier, Anthes' parents, Melissa and Erik Sr., a veteran Pasco sheriff's deputy, drove along Peace Boulevard near their home in Shady Hills when they saw a military utility vehicle in front of Miller's house. Officers in dress uniforms were talking to his mother, Kim.
"We knew,'' Mrs. Anthes said. "We just held our breath, praying our son was safe.''
On the way home from the airport, she told him about P.J. "He was the first person I knew who was killed in combat,'' Anthes said. "It brought me down several notches. It made it very real.''
Anthes began wearing the bracelet. The army assigned him to Fort Stewart, Ga., and he and Kelli found a home in the small town of Richmond Hill. Their street name: Miller Drive.
One more reminder.
Anthes spent 2010 in Baghdad with a brigade that shut down 20 operational bases. He came home in time for Christmas and enjoyed being with his parents and younger sister, Katie. He visited Miller's grave at the national cemetery in Bushnell.
"Erik always asks if there is anything he can do for me,'' said Tara, who still has difficulty handling the grief. She was one semester shy of a microbiology degree at the University of Florida when Miller was killed, dropped out and moved in with her parents in Ocala. She hopes to return to college but still isn't ready. She often visits Miller's grave and has grown especially close to his mother. They have traveled together around the United States. "She's like my mother-in-law,'' Tara said. "We keep each other sane.''
On Friday, she planned to visit the grave again. She's gotten to know several of the workers because she's there so often. She notices the headstones seem to multiply overnight. So many soldiers, so young.