Veteran Hopes Cross-Country Trek Becomes Ongoing Tribute To The Fallen
It's Day 219. Mike Viti is walking alongside a busy two-lane state road in Waynesboro, Virginia. Cars zoom past, paying no mind to the burly man with the backpack, the bushy beard and the thick thighs walking toward traffic, talking on his cellphone. Viti doesn't have time to stop for interviews. He still has more than 200 miles to go.
A former Army fullback and a West Point graduate who was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan, Viti has been walking -- and talking -- since he set off from DuPont, Washington, on April 26. Each car that passes sends a loud "whoosh" through the phone as he tells me about his hike -- 25 miles a day, six days a week, along beachfront paths, down support roads for railroad tracks and on major highways.
He's walking across America, one kilometer for each of the more than 6,800 U.S. soldiers killed over the past 13 years in the global war on terror. He started out heading straight down the West Coast, through Oregon and California, then hugged the southern edge of the country, through Arizona and Texas. Up through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, to North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and finally, Maryland. On Saturday, he'll hike his final kilometers, walking up to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore for the Army-Navy football game.
Each day, Viti writes the names of the people he's walking for on an American flag.
"The whole purpose was to do something to honor them," Viti said. "It makes me pause and reflect, having to physically write the names. It's my personal way to pay tribute to those who were protecting the country. It makes sense for me to walk across that country they protected."
By the time he's done, Viti will have 14 flags filled with the names of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine members who have died in service since 9/11. On Day 84, he wrote the names of Sgt. Gabriel Guzman, Pfc. Hannah L. Gunterman and 28 others. On Day 150 he walked a kilometer each for Senior Airman William N. Newman, Cpl. Dominique J. Nicolas and 33 more. On Day 221 he hiked in honor of Staff Sgt. Jessica M. Wing, Spc. Robert A. Wise and 28 others.
The idea for Hiking for Heroes came last fall, when Viti was hiking just outside of Las Vegas, thinking about his colleagues still stationed overseas. Out of the service and working as a director for a hospital corporation, Viti realized how easy it was for the people around him to ignore the war and the lives it's taken.
"Thirteen years is a long time," he said. "There's a lot of fatigue over war in this country. It's frustrating to me that people don't even want to be bothered with it. People don't want to be notified when a soldier died. ... We're not even having a ticker-tape parade at the end of 2014, and that's sad. It isn't for me, it isn't for the guys that are around to enjoy it; it's for our heroes. We're not having that seminal moment as a country to reflect and honor at the highest level."
He quit his job, told his wife, Laura, of his plans and gathered support from fellow Army veterans Mark Faldowski and Alex Larson. Faldowski acts as strategic director and has hiked a great deal of the journey with Viti. Larson, who has put off studying to be a physician's assistant in order to assist with the mission, is director of operations and has driven ahead of Viti along the way, handling outreach and logistics.
Viti didn't map out the fastest route across the country, instead allowing for plenty of detours to visit Gold Star families, those who have lost a family member in combat. He wants to hear about them, get to know them and carry them with him on his journey.
"Unless you're a Gold Star family, you'll never really understand what a military death brings," he said. "There are so many more variables. It happens so far away, it happens maybe a year into a deployment and you'll never know the last year of [your loved one's] life. A lot of times families have followed their loved ones for the last 10 years through military service and already have been through a lot, and now they don't even have that person with them."
Viti has met and hiked with more than 60 Gold Star families on his way across the country and has made a few other special stops as well.
On June 6, he visited 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and was invited to speak to members of the team's rookie class. "What really surprised me was the 49ers' positive regard for the military," Viti said. "There was a deep respect that I was truly humbled by."
It feels right to honor them at a game, at a place that was part of the men they were. Everybody kind of understands the Army-Navy game from afar, but it's really about the brotherhood. It's about the service and the commitment to country afterward.Mike Viti
The next month, on Day 87, Niners linebacker Dan Skuta met up with Viti in Yuma, Arizona. Skuta joined Viti for 12 miles of hiking in 120-degree heat in honor of his close friend Sgt. Joseph Johnson, who died in combat in 2010.
On Day 138, Sept. 11, Viti hiked for 24 straight hours, logging almost 70 miles in one day. Each one-hundredth of a mile was in honor of the service men and women killed in the wars that came after the 9/11 attacks, the same men and women he has been walking a kilometer for every day.
He was joined for parts of the hike by 17 former Army football players and vets. All walked at least some of the way and all met him at midnight, vowing never to forget the catalyst for the past 13 years of war.
On Day 214, Thanksgiving, a handful of family members, including Viti's wife and parents, flew to Virginia to surprise him and hike alongside him for the day. They left when night fell, and he pulled the cot and tent out of his backpack for another night spent under the stars. Viti has spent nearly half of his nights since April sleeping outside, alone. Other nights were spent at the homes of Gold Star families or, as it's gotten colder, in hotels.
Viti has dodged traffic, suffered the pain of blisters and achy joints, and lost more than 40 pounds along the way. Last Saturday, former Army teammate Connor Crehan and five other teammates joined Viti in Virginia, walking 24 miles with him on cold, wet day. Crehan marveled at Viti's spirits more than 200 days into such a grueling endeavor.
"We asked Mike questions about his journey and he indulged us," Crehan said. "Telling us funny stories of encountering border patrol or cops who got reports that a strange man was walking on the side of the road."
They also spent a lot of time reminiscing about their Army football days.
"Mike made a great point; he said very few of our names will be remembered for what we did on the field," Crehan said. "It matters more what impact we have the further removed we are from playing. How can we help our communities and those around us? ... He's not out for fame or personal glory -- quite the opposite. He's out for each and every one of those families."
On the final day of his hike, Viti will tell his final two stories. He'll walk his second-to-last kilometer in honor of former Navy quarterback J.P. Blecksmith, a Marine second lieutenant who was killed in Iraq in 2004, and the last kilometer, leading into M&T Bank Stadium, will be for Army 1st Lt. Chase Prasnicki, a former teammate of Viti's at West Point. Prasnicki was killed in 2012 in Afghanistan, two days into a deployment he volunteered to lead.
Viti will walk with Prasnicki's widow, the families of both men, as many former Army and Navy football players as possible, and anyone else who wants to walk for the cause.
"It feels right to honor them at a game, at a place that was part of the men they were," Viti said. "Everybody kind of understands the Army-Navy game from afar, but it's really about the brotherhood. It's about the service and the commitment to country afterward. We're hoping that it becomes a tradition that every year we walk for our fallen brothers from both service academies before the game."
When Viti finishes his hike Saturday and someone says to him, "Wow, you just hiked across America!" he plans to respond, "Yeah, but that's still not enough" before introducing the successor to his journey.
"In 2015 we have a guy who's transitioning out of the Navy, and he's going to swim the length of the Mississippi in honor of our fallen heroes," Viti said. "Our mindset is to do something physically, mentally and emotionally demanding that requires all of you in honor of the ultimate sacrifice. We'll keep the same core mission but tell that story through different projects.
"These are outlets for other service members. For people who transition out, here's a way, instead of going right back into the civilian world, to do a project that honors your brothers and sisters in the military."
On Saturday, Day 232, when Viti writes Prasnicki's name on that 14th flag, his journey will be over. He hopes the impact of his hike, and the memory of those he walked to honor, will live on much longer.