Joe “Tiger” Patrick is walking across the country alone, but he’s carrying a lot of people with him.
His backpack holds thousands of names, each one matched with the face and the memory of a member of the armed forces killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Patrick walked through the rain from Topeka this morning, setting his burden down at a Lawrence fire station to take a rest. He was roughly halfway through a winding, 3,500-mile trek from California to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
He will stay here Tuesday to celebrate his 50th birthday and publicly display his tribute: a memorial panel showing the names and photos of 6,688 men and women who sacrificed their lives in post-9/11 conflicts.
Patrick, a U.S. Army veteran, started his walk three months ago in southern California with a simple mission: to make sure people across the country remember the fallen, and to honor them. He’s performed similar missions before, walking to each crash site linked to the 9/11 attacks in 2011.
But since then, America has continued to lose lives in the wars. Unable to reenlist and fight beside them, Patrick said, he is doing what he can.
“If I can’t have their back over there, I’d like to do it here,” he said.
The walk began on April 27 at a VFW post in Imperial Beach, Calif., near a military facility where some of the first casualties of current wars had been stationed. From there, Patrick, a headhunter for the telecommunications industry from Rhode Island, walked alone through Arizona, Colorado, and Kansas. He has stopped in countless communities along the way, meeting with family members of men and women lost in the wars, and showing people the memorial panel, which he plans to present to the Veterans Administration headquarters at the Walter Reed medical center in Bethesda at the end of his journey.
The memorial panel, 25 feet long and eight feet tall, is the product of about 18 months of research, Patrick said. When he started the walk, it carried the names and photos of 6,655 Americans. For Patrick, his efforts are rewarded at moments like one in Topeka, where grieving family members examining the panel found a familiar face.
"That moment, when they find their loved one, among all those faces, that's a special moment," Patrick said.
But the fighting continues, and more service members die even as Patrick walks to honor them. He’s already stopped to add more names, and more photos. Today, the panel carries 6,688 names, 74 of them Kansans, and he has still more to add. By the time he reaches Maryland, his panel will have at least 22 more names of service members who have died in the last several weeks. He is waiting for official confirmation to add two more to that figure.
The burden is heavy in more than one sense: the panel weighs more than 20 pounds, added to the clothes, food and water Patrick has carried halfway across the country on his back. Since he started, Patrick has dispensed with a heavy cover for the panel that fireman along the way signed or added department patches to. “It was just too much,” Patrick said. “Without that, the pack went from 80 to 60 pounds, and that’s huge in a bag where I can feel if the sandwich I put in is extra-large.”
An alliance with firefighters along the way has been of enormous help, Patrick said. In Lawrence, the firefighters of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Station No. 3, at 3708 W. 6th St., have given him a place to stay and are helping him map his way east, making contact with fire officials in Kansas City.
“I learned long ago to trust Google less, and trust locals more, when it comes to charting my route,” Patrick said.
Tuesday, Patrick will display his memorial panel at the No. 3 fire station from 5 to 7 p.m., and he’ll move on Wednesday. He hopes to stop in Bonner Springs and see some military families from Leavenworth before leaving Kansas.
“I had never been to Kansas before,” Patrick said. “And I’ve been very blessed with the response I’ve received. It’s been nothing but joy.”
From Kansas City, the plan is to continue east, step by step, toward Maryland. But events elsewhere are overtaking Patrick on the road, and he said he is now planning a major detour — most likely by plane — to Arizona, to walk through the area where 19 firefighters died in a wildfire on June 30.
Patrick said he doesn’t even want to think about how many more miles he has to go, but has no plans to quit. “It’s a labor of love,” he said. “Just tell me how far I have to go tomorrow.”