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A long goodbye

Deputy Peter Kolnicki leaves for war today. He has known he was going for 16 days.

By ROBIN STEIN
Published September 10, 2006


TARPON SPRINGS - This time they gave him 16 days' notice.

He packed two duffel bags and typed up a meticulous five-page list for his wife: instructions for using the weed whacker, adding salt to the water softener, changing the air filter.

He loaded his new iPod with '80s one-hit wonders and photos from all the goodbye parties.

On Friday, he turned in his gun and patrol car, and this morning, Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy Peter Kolnicki is leaving for war.

The last time Kolnicki was called up for duty, they gave him about 18 hours.

It was nine days after Sept. 11, 2001, said Kolnicki, a 40-year-old school resource officer. The phone rang in his office at East Lake High School about 11 a.m. The commander of the Naval Reserve Center at MacDill Air Force Base was on the line.

"He just told me, 'Pack your crap and be here at 7:30 a.m.,' " Kolnicki said.

Not a hint about where he was headed or when he'd be back. No tips about what to tell Courtney, his 3-year-old.

"I'll never forget the day I had to leave," said Kolnicki, his eyes watering. "My car was all packed, and as I drove off, in the mirror I saw my daughter running down the street."

His wife, Laura, was nine months' pregnant at the time.

In 2001, Kolnicki got lucky. He was assigned to base security at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, close enough to make it home in time to see Laura give birth to their son, Matthew.

And they released him in July 2002, after less than 10 months.

Kolnicki returned to find that his position at East Lake High was filled, but another opened up at Tarpon Springs High School, his alma mater.

Some of his old teachers are still there, Kolnicki said, and it has been great to be working with kids back in his hometown.

But five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the war goes on. And Kolnicki knew he had fulfilled less than half of his 24-month service obligation.

"It wasn't a matter of if I was going to be mobilized," he said. "It was when."

When, it turned out, was Aug. 25.

He was scheduled to leave Monday.

"I wouldn't let him leave then," said Laura. "Something about flying on Sept. 11, I don't know what it is, but it's not happening."

But Laura said she is less troubled by when her husband is deployed than by where.

Kolnicki, citing security reasons, would only say that he is being sent to a "combat zone in the desert."

He is being deployed with the inshore boat unit of the Naval Coastal Warfare Group 1, a joint-service force based in San Diego. The mission: provide security and antiterrorism patrol for coastline harbors and waterways.

It will be Kolnicki's first time in a war zone - nearly 2½ decades after he first enlisted in the Army.

He joined for career security, but once the culture shock of basic training faded, Kolnicki said he quickly realized it was a natural fit. During his active duty in Germany, Kolnicki won awards for physical readiness, military bearing, aircraft recognition.

He was in the Army Reserve for another six years, until he tired of the monthly weekends in the woods that left him with all sorts of rashes and bites.

But five years later, the day before he and Laura were to be married, Kolnicki made two major moves.

He bought a Mustang GT and joined the Navy Reserve.

Laura did not even understand what being in the reserves really meant, and it was years before she would find out.

But she was angry about the Mustang, since he had just traded in her Mitsubishi Eclipse sports car for a Honda.

"I wasn't ready for the famster," she recalled. "But he said you have to get the four-door for when we have kids."

These days, Laura is driving a minivan with miniature flags propped in the cup holders, and she has been trying hard not to cry in front of the kids.

She brings the kids to the going-away parties and thanks everyone for the cakes. But standing next to him smiling for the snapshots, she reaches until she finds his hand and holds it tight.

"It's really lonely" said Laura. "I feel like he's dying in a way, There are so many people coming over with all this food, like I'm burying him or something."

"For her it's bad news, for me, it's good and bad," he said. "Since 9/11, in light of everything that's happened, I've got really mixed emotions about leaving. I feel as though by mobilizing in 2001 and now, I'm doing my small part to combat terrorism."

"I'm nervous and scared, and if I wasn't, I'd be really stupid," he said.

Some things, like roadside bombs, you can't control, he said.

"But as long as you keep your wits about you, I think you'll be okay," he adds firmly.

Yet, since that call in August, Kolnicki said there have been a lot of nights when it's 3:30 in the morning and they are both wide awake, with nothing left to say.

And so he puts on his running gear, throws on his new iPod Nano, and goes for a jog down Old Dixie Highway, listening to Dexy's Midnight Runners.