APK Charities Ruck March: “It helped us have purpose again”
380-mile trek traces life of state native, Andrew Pedersen-Keel, killed in Afghanistan
A group of about a dozen people began a 380-mile journey Tuesday, and not by car, train, bus or bike, but on foot.
Some were rucking, carrying 35-pound camouflage backpacks. One couple pushed a stroller with their young daughter.
While participants would alternate and not everyone planned to join for the full weeklong trek, the trip would trace the life of fallen Army Capt. Andrew M. Pedersen-Keel, a Walling-ford native who later moved to Madison. Its starting point was Avon Old Farms School in Avon, where Pedersen-Keel spent his teenage years, and ruckers plan to finish at his grave marker in Arlington National Cemetery.
Along the way, stops are to include West Point, Pedersen-Keel’s alma mater, and Ground Zero in New York City. Some stepped off for the journey carrying banners bearing the names of Pedersen-Keel and 35 other soldiers and others who have died.
The “Ruck 2 Remember” is in initiative of APK Charities, the nonprofit established in Pedersen-Keel’s name. It provides direct assistance to military veterans and Gold Star families, according to Bob Keiser, Pedersen-Keel’s stepfather, who founded the organization alongside Helen Pedersen-Keiser, Pedersen-Keel’s mother.
Funds raised via the ruck will be used to create a video to raise awareness for mental health services available to soldiers, Keiser said.
While APK Charities holds a 5K ruck at the Guilford Fairgrounds each year, this is its second long-distance event, according to Keiser, who said the first took place in 2019, beginning at Arlington National Cemetery and ending at Avon Old Farms School.
The idea came from Chief Warrant Officer 3 William Reese, now a member of the Army’s 3rd Special Forces Group, who met Pedersen-Keel about eight years ago while deployed to Afghanistan. Several months later, in 2013, Pedersen-Keel, also a member of the 3rd Special Forces Group, was killed alongside alongside teammates in a “green on blue” attack — an allied force fired upon them.
Though they only knew each other a short time, Reese befriended Pedersen-Keel, and two things about the 28-year-old stood out: he took care of others, and in the face of grueling work, Pedersen-Keel never stopped smiling, he said.
It wasn’t just Reese who remembered Pedersen-Keel’s smile.
“He had the ability to kinda disarm you with his smile,” said Kevin Driscoll, former dean of students at Avon Old Farms School and Pedersen-Keel’s football coach.
That smile made it impossible for Driscoll to be mad at Pedersen-Keel, who was described as a good-natured prankster during his school days.
Pedersen-Keel also was a three-sport athlete, editor of the school newspaper and “larger than life,” according to Driscoll. He said Peder-sen-Keel, fondly known as “P.K.,” inspired Driscoll’s nephew to attend the Naval Academy.
“That’s the kind of reach that P.K. had,” Driscoll said. “He affected so many people. … I miss him.”
But Pedersen-Keel’s influence did not stop with his death. His family and friends made sure of that.
Reese, for example, got involved with APK Charities after sustaining an injury he thought would prevent him from remaining in the military, he said.
He ultimately recovered — and soon will be deployed to Germany — but when his future was uncertain, he was in a “really dark place,” he said.
But then he reached out to Keiser and began helping out with APK Charities.
“The reason we started (the ruck) is that it provided purpose … and a means to be able to honor their fallen heroes,” Reese said.
He got other military folks involved, he said, and a small community came to revolve around APK Charities.
“It became a platform which we were able to use to talk about things such as TBI (traumatic brain injury), PTSD,” he said. “A lot of us have gone through different types of therapy to deal with those things. … (The ruck) gives them something to come together, and do together, and kinda talk about the times — the good times, the bad times – while memorializing their fallen heroes.”
“It’s therapeutic for everyone,” Reese went on. “It helped us have purpose again, while helping others.”
Two former service members arrived alongside Reese at Avon Old Farms’ campus, ready to ruck. They were part of the community Reese mentioned.
There were civilians there, too, including several Madison residents — friends of Pedersen-Keel’s family, and others who have gotten involved with APK Charities.
They set off shortly after 9 a.m., planning to complete 90 miles Tuesday.
If all goes as planned, the ruck will end at Arlington National Cemetery June 8 — Pedersen-Keel’s birthday.
To donate to APK Charities, please visit the APK Charities Donation page.
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