Joe "Tiger" Patrick said his plan to walk across America has sparked a lot of Forrest Gump jokes from friends and family, but the 50-year-old Rhode Island man has more purpose to his walk than the well-known movie character played by Tom Hanks.
Patrick will walk alone but insists he will have company.
“I’ll have 6,655 men and women walking with me,” he said of a 200-square-foot banner sewn together with the faces of every service member who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"It's humbling to see all these smiling faces."
Starting at noon Saturday, Patrick will begin a journey of more than 3,000 miles from Coronado to Washington, D.C., to remember more than 6,650 service members killed in those wars and remind their families they are not forgotten.
VFW Post 5477 will host the first public unveiling of the banner at 5 p.m. Saturday at 123 Palm Ave.
All are welcome to attend.
"I felt a compelling need to do something to honor to our fallen heroes, to give people a close up view of those we lost. This isn't a political statement, but an expression of love and respect for those who volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way to protect us here at home," Patrick said in a statement.
Along the way, he will unfurl the banner and meet family members of those who died in the wars, stopping at fire stations, American Legion posts and VFW posts.
Location updates will be posted on the Faces of Our Fallen Facebook page while Patrick makes his way east.
Wounded veterans will be invited to autograph a bat used by Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. The bat will be auctioned at the end of the trip. Proceeds will benefit the Wounded Warrior Project.
Firefighters will also be invited to sign a coat that will be donated to the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD.
The trek will begin on the beach near Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Patrick said, because he wants to recognize Navy SEALs who died in combat before and during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn in Iraq.
“It was important to me for the official start of the walk to be where the SEALs start their training,” he said.
On the first leg of the walk, Patrick will go from San Diego to Phoenix.
He will then take a week off to fly home for the Rhode Island Special Olympics. When the walk resumes he will go to Fort Riley in Kansas, an Army base that suffered dozens of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The walk will end near Washington, D.C., with trips to Arlington National Cemetery and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The banner was sewn together earlier this month after an extensive research process that included review of militarytimes.com and Washington Post lists of casualties, Patrick said.
News of new casualties and new names and faces to add to the banner delayed its production in recent weeks, he said. New faces will be added once a month.
"So it's like a living, breathing memorial," the Gulf War veteran said.
In 2011 Patrick walked from Washington, D.C. to Shanksville, PA to New York to commemorate Sept. 11 attacks on America.
To prepare for his next walk, Patrick gained weight and downloaded audio books and thousands of songs. He will also listen to radio broadcasts of Red Sox games.
"I'm in good shape and I've actually gained 18 pounds cause I read I need to camel it a little bit," he said.
Patrick said he was inspired to walk in 2011 when he was diagnosed with a disease that will lead to the gradual deterioration of his health.
"I'm sure there will be days when I'm really mad at myself for being in the middle of nowhere and camping," he said.
That's especially when, he said, he will recall the memory of thousands who live on in memories and biographies and obituaries.
"When it's not about you, it's easy to throw yourself in 100 percent," Patrick said.