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26.2-mile march to raise awareness of mental illness among military veterans

Walking 26.2 miles is a physical feat in itself, but imagine trekking the distance while carrying an extra 50 pounds.

That is what a group of 100 people will attempt early Saturday morning, all to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide among military veterans, according to US Army Captain Justin Fitch.

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“We do this to represent the burden our brothers and sisters are carrying,” said Fitch, who said he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after his first tour in Iraq in 2006. “We carry the weight that they can no longer carry themselves.”

The group, dubbed Team Minuteman, will walk the route of the Boston Marathon while carrying weighted rucksacks. This journey, called “Carry the Fallen” will raise money for Active Heroes, a charity group working to build a military family retreat in Shepherdsville, Ky.

Teams across the world will complete similar walks, said Fitch.

Fitch has served two tours in the military. The first, a 15-month tour in Iraq in 2006, and the second, a seven-month stint as a support officer in a special operations unit in 2009, he said.

After his first tour, he said, he suffered PTSD and depression and contemplated suicide.

“I was in a very dark place,” said Fitch. “But I got help and came back even stronger. Some aren’t so lucky.”

Fitch said that mental illness and suicides among veterans are “a hard thing to talk about and a hard thing to understand. But we’re working to raise awareness and fight the stigma.”

This is the second time Team Minuteman has tackled the Boston route. Fitch said they pick this walk, from Hopkinton, Mass., to Boylston Street in Boston because it is very visible.

On Veterans Day in 2013 the group walked and raised $35,000. This time around, they’ve more than doubled this amount, already raising $71,206, said Fitch.

Though Fitch is currently battling health problems — he was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy — he said he’s up for the challenge.

“I’m going to do this,” he said. “I’m a captain in the US Army, but I’m doing this as a civilian and as a veteran.”

Jacqueline Tempera can be reached at jacqueline.tempera@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @jacktemp

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