In August 2011, 30 American families found themselves joined by tragedy when a Chinook helicopter was shot down by the Taliban in Afghanistan, killing everyone on board.
On Sunday, seven of these Gold Star families will gather at the eighth annual Tampa Bay Frogman Swim, created seven years ago to honor fallen and wounded Navy SEALs.
At a time when less than half a percent of Americans serve in the military, and service members and their families feel a disconnect with civilians, the event helps bridge the gap. It is designed to raise money for the Navy SEAL Foundation and awareness of the sacrifices made by service members and their families.
There were 17 members of Virginia-based SEAL Team 6 aboard the downed Chinook.
"The event provides an opportunity to spend time with other family members who have felt the same horrible pain and consequences of war," said Cindy Campbell, whose brother, 36-year-old Navy SEAL Petty Officer Christopher Campbell, was among those killed on Extortion 17, the call sign of the helicopter flight. "It also is a platform for my brother, Chris, to be remembered — not forgotten."
Organizer Kurt Ott said about 175 people signed up for the 3.1-mile swim from the Gandy Beach to Picnic Island. The swim kicks off with a ceremony on Gandy Beach at 7:30 a.m.
Organizers expect to raise at least $500,000 for the Navy SEAL Foundation. The event has raised more than $2 million since its inception.
In addition to honoring those who served, this year's event also pays homage to Terry Tomalin, the late outdoors editor of the Tampa Bay Times who helped create the swim in 2010. This is the first swim since Tomalin, 55, died after a heart attack in May.
Tomalin played a key role in bridging the military-civilian gap, say those associated with the swim.
Some of the families who will be honored through their efforts this weekend spoke about the loved ones they lost.
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It wasn't until after Chief Special Warfare Operator Heath Robinson, 34, died that his family knew the extent of his heroism, said his father, Don Robinson.
"When he died, I found out he had four Bronze Stars, three with Valor, three Purple Hearts and 56 medals and citations in all," Robinson said. "I never knew any of this."
Even in death, the honors kept coming, Robinson said. On Friday, he said, one of his son's Bronze Stars was upgraded to Silver Star after a review of 400 Navy SEAL missions found instances of heroism that required even higher commendation.
To Robinson, whose son was with SEAL Team 6 for about nine years and was serving on what was to be his last deployment when he died, the swim is a way to connect with the only people who know what it is like to lose a child to military service.
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"It is very emotional," said Robinson, who has attended in the past. "Last year, a guy introduced himself and said he was swimming for Heath. We cried."
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Like Heath Robinson, Kraig Vickers, 34, was on his last deployment to Afghanistan when the helicopter was shot down.
"His passions were to protect and serve," said his brother, Mark Vickers.
The Hawaii-born Vickers, a chief petty officer who worked in explosive ordnance disposal, had earned three Bronze Stars with V Device and a Purple Heart among many other honors, according to Military Times. When he was killed, he had two children and his wife, Nani, was pregnant with a daughter.
"I have never been to the frogman swim," Mark Vickers said. "So I am truly honored to be a part of this very special event for my first time."
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Navy SEAL Master Chief Petty Officer Brian Bill, 31, who earned a Bronze Star with V Device among other medals, "was proud to be a frogman and he was a damn good one, too," said his sister, Amy Kutney.
Kutney said that if her brother was still alive, he would take part in the frogman swim.
"He'd embrace the cold water and strong current, all the while looking to find exotic marine life," she said. "That's just the type of spirit and toughness he and the special men in the teams possess. It's what makes them America's greatest fighting force."
She said attending the swim has had deep meaning for her family.
"We are so honored to be part of such a special day, which supports a very special community."
Contact Howard Altman at email@example.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.