ST. PETERSBURG — Carrying 31 bricks on a stretcher across 31 miles for 12 hours through the night is the least local Gold Star father Scott Bill can do to honor his son.
Chief Petty Officer Brian Bill, 31, a member of the Navy's elite SEAL Team 6, was among the 30 American soldiers killed in Afghanistan in 2011 when a rocket-propelled grenade downed their Chinook helicopter with the call sign Extortion 17. A U.S. military service dog was also on board the fatal flight. It remains one of the deadliest attacks against American soldiers in the region.
Since 2012, hundreds have convened in Washington D.C. each year to keep the memory of the fallen alive by walking a symbolic 31 miles throughout the D.C. metro area, ending at Arlington National Cemetery. On Saturday, Bill will lead his own team. They plan to present an engraved brick to each of the fallen's families.
"To me, that was something much stronger and has much more meaning than just going out and walking the 31 miles," Bill said.
Participating in the walk isn't the only way Bill has paid homage to his son's legacy of service. For the last four years, he has run the Brian Bill Foundation in St. Petersburg.
The nonprofit offers groups of 10 active-duty and veteran special operations warriors a three-day therapeutic retreat at Westgate River Ranch Resort and Rodeo covering everything from equine assisted therapy, sessions with nutritionists and sleep experts, and accelerated resolution therapy. The cost of the retreat, food, lodging and transportation are all covered.
The program doesn't end after that. Participants can do follow-up sessions free of charge with retreat psychologists and they are added to email and text groups to keep in touch with fellow warriors as they return home or to service.
This year, the nonprofit was able to add a new couples retreat program, taking into account the challenges veterans face when returning home and interacting with their families.
"I wanted to do something for the community," Bill said. "I just felt like it was my calling."
Getting the nonprofit up and running took longer than Bill expected. Fundraising was relatively new to him. His closest experience was when he served as an ambassador for the Navy SEAL Foundation. During the first year of running therapeutic programs, Bill could only do 3 or 4 programs a year for a few warriors.
Since then, the nonprofit has served 300 participants with plans to serve 100 per year. Right now the couples and warrior programs alternate each month. The goal for next year is to offer both programs at the same time.
As the nonprofit has grown to accommodate more participants it has also added more features based on participants' feedback.
Bill's wife, Jennifer, noted that many warriors coming into the retreats reported poor eating habits and trouble sleeping due to their service. It led the nonprofit to add sessions on nutrition and sleeping techniques where participants can take what they learn at the ranch and apply the tips at home.
"The job is not normal," she said. "The job needs special attention"
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During the 31-mile walk on Saturday, Bill will be seeking donations for the Brian Bill Foundation, with all funds going toward the therapeutic retreats.
Terry Ford, a Navy veteran and systems engineer in Tampa who started the walk back in 2012, noted that Bill's participation, on top of his nonprofit work, is a great way to honor Brian Bill's legacy.
"His son lived to serve," Ford said.
Ford added that while a version of the walk is typically held in Tampa each year, the local walk was postponed this time until early August next year.
Once Bill returns from the nation's capital, he says he'll go right back to work managing fundraising for his warriors.
"I think we'll always be doing this," Bill said. "I know I will."
Contact Ileana Najarro at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @IleanaNajarro.