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A war veteran, a flag and a mission

June 19, 2013 Updated: June 19, 2013 at 6:55 pm
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Wind whipped a banner with the pictures of thousands of fallen U.S. troops, folding it on top of itself and covering some of their faces.

Joe Patrick Jr. instinctively dropped to his knee and smoothed the banner, which laid unfurled in front of the Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial in Memorial Park on Wednesday.

"This is to provide people with the opportunity to see the faces behind the numbers," said Patrick, who is walking cross-country to bring attention to troops who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since this spring, Patrick has hiked the nation's highways, his 25-foot-by-8-foot banner neatly packed in a camouflage rucksack

He displays the banner - which contains the faces of the more than 6,500 casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - each time he stops.

He usually finds an audience with firefighters, who often provide him with overnight lodging when he informs them of his mission, Patrick said.

"I think anyone who serves community or country is a kindred soul," he said.

No active-duty military members were on hand Wednesday for the impromptu banner unveiling.

But there were veterans in the small crowd of Colorado Springs firefighters who attended.

As Patrick spoke, Colorado Springs Fire Department Station 1 Capt. Steve Riker knelt before the sea of young faces.

As he rubbed this thumb over the portrait of a young soldier he put his fist to his mouth and fought back tears.

"It's pretty humbling to see the faces," said Riker, a former Air Force firefighter. "We tend to put this stuff off to the back of our minds if we don't see it on the news every night. They were in the highlight of their lives."

Patrick, who served nearly a decade as an Army calvary scout, says he gained his affinity for firefighters while volunteering at Ground Zero in after Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, he calls ahead to fire stations, asking them to provide him with lodging for the night and to attend his presentation before he packs his belongings and hits the road.

The Colorado Springs Fire Department received Patrick's call Wednesday morning. Firefighters were happy to transport Patrick to the memorial in a fire truck and attend the ceremony, Riker said.

After an hour of fellowship, Patrick asked the firefighters to roll up his traveling tribute.

On Thursday, he planned to head east on Highway 24 for Peyton, his next stop.

In October, Patrick will end his journey in Emmitsburg, Md.

When the war in Afghanistan ends next year, he'll update his banner one last time. Then he'll walk from his home in Rhode Island to Washington, D.C., where he'll present the banner to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It will be the last chapter in the story for the Desert Storm veteran, who has been diagnosed with a degenerative lung disease that is expected to worsen in coming years.

But his plight is not the point, he said. Honoring the newest generation of fallen troops is, and he's reminded of his motivation each time he unfurls his banner.

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