MOUNT PLEASANT, Pa. (AP) — Joe "Tiger" Patrick II turned 50 on July 30 while walking a lonely stretch of road in Kansas.
"Kansas isn't as flat as people say. ... Maybe it is when you're driving," he said.
Patrick, of Peace Dale, R.I., is walking east, alone and on foot, across America in an effort to raise awareness of the U.S. military casualties in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through "Faces of our Fallen."
On Tuesday, Patrick's journey brought him to Mt. Pleasant.
"The last time I hit mountains was in Colorado," Patrick said. "It's been a grind walking six days a week, 20 to 25 miles a day, but I've had a lot of help."
Patrick said he was inspired to begin walking in 2011, when he was diagnosed with a degenerative liver disease.
"This walk is on my bucket list," he said. "I want to be clean when I go to the other side and look those soldiers in the eye."
"... It's 10 years now since that war started," said Patrick, who served as an Army sergeant in Operation Desert Storm. "That's like 900 times as long as Desert Storm, which lasted only three days."
In his 90-pound backpack, Patrick carries an American flag and an 8-by-25-foot banner that bears the names and photographs of 6,722 men and women killed in action while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Patrick said the panel is intended to give a "close-up view to those lost" and "to provide people with the opportunity to see the faces behind the numbers."
His journey — it is expected to take six months and cover more than 3,000 miles — began on April 27 in Coronado Beach in the southwestern tip of California.
Patrick said he selected the starting point because of the many Navy Seals stationed at the nearby amphibious base on Coronado Island. Along the way, Patrick has been given lodging at 127 fire departments and 14 emergency medical service agencies.
At each stop, Patrick unfolds the panel for public view. Members of each fire department and agency are invited to sign their names on a pair of his military cargo pants.
After serving 10 years in the military, Patrick said, he was too old to re-enlist. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Patrick volunteered for three weeks at Ground Zero, he said. During that time, he came to admire firefighters.
"I consider them to be true heroes," Patrick said.
In 2011, Patrick completed a memorial walk to honor the families and loved ones of those who died on 9/11, as well as the first responders.
During his current journey, Patrick said, one of many families of fallen veterans he has met was that of the late Army Sgt. Nathan Kennedy in Washington, Pa.
"They were real appreciative that someone from Rhode Island was carrying around a picture of their son," he said.
When he arrived in Mt. Pleasant, he was greeted by fire Chief Jerry Lucia and Mt. Pleasant Medic 10 operations manager Mike Oplinger.
Lucia said he received a call Monday evening from Bob Whiten Jr., chief of the Charleroi fire department, where Patrick was staying the night.
"He asked if we could put Tiger up for the night since he was headed to Mt. Pleasant on Tuesday," Lucia said. "It's amazing what he is doing."
On Sunday night, Whiten got a similar call from the City of Washington fire department.
"They knew I had a paid driver at the station. We picked Joe up and brought him in from (state) Route 136," Whiten said. "About 6 o'clock this morning, he got up, did his warm-up exercises, and he was off. If people keep helping him, he's going to go far."
Patrick stayed overnight at the Mt. Pleasant Medic 10 emergency medical service facility.
"Jerry called me and asked if we have room for him, and I said we had bunk beds to spare," said Oplinger. "I'm just looking forward to sitting with him and talking about his experiences."
Patrick will head to Somerset on Wednesday.
Lucia is working to secure a place for him to sleep at the Somerset Borough Volunteer Fire Department.
Patrick plans to reach the U.S. National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., for a ceremony to be held on Oct. 6 in honor of fallen firefighters. He'll then walk to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com