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Adrien Brody pal among Iraq troops back at Totten receive warm welcome home

Thomas Zarobinski Jr., who received a special wish for a safe...

By Ayala Ben-Yehuda

A Rego Park soldier saluted during the Academy Awards in March by actor Adrien Brody was one of several dozen troops welcomed back from Iraq in a spirited ceremony Tuesday at Fort Totten.

Thomas Zarobinski Jr., who received a special wish for a safe return by Best Actor winner Brody during the Oscars telecast, joined his fellow 773rd Transportation Company members at the Ernie Pyle U.S. Army Reserve Center in receiving a medal for meritorious service.

The fuel supply unit, based at Fort Totten, shipped out in November. Most of the soldiers returned from Iraq just last week, spending a few days at New Jersey’s Fort Dix before being released.

Zarobinski, whose parents, wife and in-laws attended the ceremony, said it took about a week for him to find out about Brody’s speech.

“I didn’t even know he was up for an Oscar,” he said.

In accepting the Best Actor award for his role in “The Pianist,” Brody, a Woodhaven native and childhood friend of Zarobinski’s, sent him a message heard around the world.

“I have a friend from Queens who’s a soldier in Kuwait right now, Tommy Zarobinski,” Brody said. “And I hope you and your boys make it back real soon. God bless you guys. I love you.”

Zarobinski said the actor’s televised tribute was a “big time” morale booster for the troops in his unit.

The media blitz surrounding it has led to his being recognized in Rego Park upon his return from Iraq.

“Anytime I go to my parents’ house, I can’t walk from their home to Queens Boulevard without getting at least 15 hugs,” said Zarobinski.

The soldier has not been officially released from service yet, having suffered a neck injury during what he called “a ground-shaking experience” in Iraq. He did not elaborate.

Zarobinski’s mother Ada said simply, “I’m very happy he’s back.”

Her sentiment was shared by the crowds of cheering family members at the ceremony who held up handmade “Welcome Back” signs as the soldiers received medals for their service.

One of the loudest cheers came from the family of Sgt. Raymond Darr, a Richmond Hill resident.

Darr’s wife Vaneysha and father-in-law Tony Shafiek said they listened to the news 24 hours a day while he was gone.

Now that Darr is home, “we intend to have a prayer ceremony, first of all, thanking God for his safe return home,” said Shafiek.

Darr’s wife, a first-grade teacher at PS 33 in Queens Village, had her students write letters to soldiers in her husband’s unit.

Michael Melillo of Ozone Park, whose son James Melillo was deployed with the 773rd, said his son’s service in Iraq “was the longest nine months of my life.”

Every time news came of casualties, “you wonder and wonder and wonder until he calls.”

Chet Marcus, a spokesman for the 77th Army Reserve Regional Support Command at Fort Totten, said the transport company had not lost any soldiers in battle.

“This is a very, very lucky unit,” said Marcus. “They went through some firefights and situations where they all could’ve been killed.”

Ozone Park resident Jason Cruz came to the ceremony with his family to officially welcome back his father-in-law, Staff Sgt. Peter Torruella.

Torruella, 40, had been deployed to Iraq twice since November but was brought home in early June via Medevac due to an unexplained illness, the main symptom of which was sleeplessness, said Cruz.

Torruella’s son-in-law said the soldier planned to ship out again in January.

“He said he’s not (too) sick to fight for his country,” said Cruz.

Sgt. Christopher Joseph of Hollis said, “I’m glad we went and got rid of Saddam.”

Joseph, 40, said he witnessed firsthand the starvation suffered by Iraqis, often giving his meals and water to beggars.

“As I’d be driving, I’d just toss it out the window,” he said.

Joseph said serving in Iraq had left him a changed person, especially after he found himself in immediate danger when his vehicle broke down on a road filled with rebel forces.

“I didn’t think I was coming home,” he said.

Several reservists who do double duty as New York City police officers, including members of the Queens North Task Force, 103rd and 105th precincts, received certificates of appreciation from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

Specialist Daniel Beck of Flushing, 33, said he was grateful for the medals he received from the Army, but that they weren’t the most important thing.

“It means more to me that we could help the people of Iraq, more than the ribbons,” said Beck.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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