Patrick always had been one to push himself to greater heights, like the spring day the track coach caught him “messing around” on the high jump.
“You are coming out for track,” the coach sternly told him, shocked that this broad-shouldered kid was leaping higher than any of his high jumpers.
Before he knew it, Patrick was soaring. He always had known he was fast, but not this fast. He wished he had started earlier, taken the time to learn the proper technique of how to leap the hurdles and navigate the turns. There would, however, be plenty of time to run later - he had always run; nothing would be able to take that from him.
He had known since his sophomore year of high school that he would join the Army upon graduating. Maybe it had something to do with his father’s service in the Korean War or that his older brother Tyrone already was enlisted. Maybe it had something to do with the way the United States Military Academy loomed over Highland Falls on the banks of the Hudson River. Or maybe it was that he had never left the state of New York and was itching to see the world.
Whatever it was, he had made his plans - he would serve two years, save money for college, then move on. However, two years led to four, four to eight, and before he knew it, it was 1991, and he was on his way to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey as part of Operation Desert Storm.
At first he didn’t know what to expect. Would Saddam Hussein come creeping over the mountains in the night? Would scud missiles scream in and destroy his air-defense unit?
After a few days of staring at a blue radar screen, waiting for nothing to happen, his fear dissipated to boredom. For the first time in his military career, he was without football.
He always had played. Flag football had seen him through desert heat at Fort Bliss, Texas, and through chills at Dexheim in Germany. It had helped him through homesickness in Korea, where he and his comrades would run like Barry Sanders and Walter Payton, then boast and brag at postgame barbecues and over card games back in the barracks.
There was no time for football with his squad pulling 12-hour shifts, so he started rising early to run laps around the base and bench-press 5-gallon jugs of water - anything to remove his mind from the “Groundhog Day” monotony.
There, in the south of Turkey, he found a routine that would sustain him until his time at Incirlik was done, through a tour in Bosnia-Herzegovina three years later and through a return trip to Iraq in 2003. It was either burn it off or burn out.
Bleeding in the street in Baghdad that fall afternoon, he made a decision: It wasn’t going to beat him. Yes, it was a cruel twist of fate that he had been selected a year earlier for a third tour in Iraq, for the “special assignment” of training the Iraqi National Police.
Sure, it had been a frustrating eight months, watching training team after training team give way to apathy when the Iraqis didn’t respond to Americans’ instruction. No, it wasn’t fair that of the nine vehicles in his convoy, his Humvee was the only one hit or that of the men in the Humvee, he was the only one lying wounded - but he wasn’t going to scream in pain. He wasn’t going to wail with frustration. He wasn’t going to let himself glance down and look at what was left of his cauterized limb. He was going to grit his teeth, bear it and move on.
He was going to run.
When George King first saw his boy lying in a bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he broke down and sobbed. He cried for the little kid he had taught to fish at Bear Mountain State Park, for the son he had cheered from the basketball stands, for the proud sergeant in the crisp Army uniform whom the folks at Andy’s Diner would ask about each morning at breakfast. He cried for the son who had always hidden his ultracompetitive streak beneath his undying optimism, ebullient personality and boundless energy.
What would Patrick do? How would he be able to balance in a fishing boat by himself? How would he be able to run? How would he ever be the same?