When most 8-year-old boys played Army in the woods, Patrick Feeks dreamed of being a Navy SEAL. He never wanted to be anything else.
"He was very focused and determined from an early age," said his father, Thomas Feeks, a retired Navy officer. "He was passionate. … Nothing could stand in his way."
The first time Patrick tried to enlist, the Navy told him he had failed his eye test. So he shopped until he could find a doctor to correct his vision.
"He tried again and made it," his father said. "He sailed through boot camp and then went to (Basic Underwater Demolition training)."
Assigned to SEAL Team 3 out of Coronado, Calif., Patrick completed several tours in Iraq before he was deployed to Afghanistan. On Aug. 16, 2012, he was killed when a U.S. military helicopter he was aboard crashed during a firefight with insurgents in a remote area of southern Afghanistan. He was 28.
"Nothing can prepare you for that," said his mother, Ginny Feeks. "But that is where he wanted to be. That is what he wanted to do."
Their son's death made the Feeks a Gold Star Family. The tradition of awarding a ceremonial gold star to the families of soldiers killed while serving dates to World War I.
Today, when more than 150 endurance athletes hit the water at Gandy Beach, on the Gandy Bridge's west side, for the seventh annual Tampa Bay Frogman Swim, the Feeks and other Gold Star Families will watch from shore. The 3.1-mile swim, one of the largest events of its kind, benefits the Navy SEAL Foundation, a charity that helps the families of SEALs wounded or killed in action.
"(Gold Star Family) is a title that nobody wants, but it is a way to honor the families of the fallen," said Emily Feeks, Patrick's widow. "All those people turning out to swim means so much to the families. It is good to know that people care.
"(The foundation was) there when I needed them … right after Patrick's death … when I had to fly out with just the clothes on my back. When I landed, they were there, check in hand, ready to help."
The Frogman Swim has grown steadily. In January 2010, just 30 people showed up on Gandy Beach to brave the 55-degree water of Tampa Bay. But that was on extremely short planning. Since, the point-to-point swim has raised more than $1 million for the SEAL Foundation.
• In 2011, the race was sanctioned as an official 5-kilometer open-water swim by USA Swimming and U.S. Masters Swimming; 67 swimmers turned out.
• The 2012 Frogman featured 120 swimmers, including three-time Olympic medalist Brooke Bennett; Craig Lenning, who has done what is known as the Triple Crown of open-water swimming: the English Channel, the Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim; and Becca Mann, then 14, who since has won national open-water championships.
• The 2013 event was capped at 150 swimmers and raised more than $250,000. Mann was the overall winner.
• In 2014, the cap was raised to 175 swimmers, and the event sold out in less than five hours.
• In 2015, the event was filled in 33 minutes. The swimmers agreed to get pledges of support and sponsors, and raised a record $392,000.
• This year's event sold out in 12 minutes.
Terry Tomalin, who has been an organizer of and participant in the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8808.