By now, chances are you have heard of Mike Viti, the former Army fullback and West Point graduate, a member of the United State Military Academy’s class of 2008 who won a Bronze star while serving as an artillery officer in Afghanistan.
If not, know this story isn’t so much about Viti as it is about those he served with and never served with, all 6,830 of the servicemen and women who have died the past 13 years in what is officially known as the Global War on Terror.
Viti’s been walking cross country since April, you see, a kilometer for every one of those who never came back from places like Iraq and Afghanistan. By the time he finishes, Viti will have walked 7,100 kilometers in all, a trek that began in DuPont, Washington just outside Seattle and will end at the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia on Dec. 13.
There’s a reason for that day in that city at that game. But to get there Viti first went south through California to San Diego, then east, crossing the country, one day at a time, 22 miles or 36 kilometers a day, six days a week. Rain or shine. And he still has to walk north.
But Monday, 122 days into his walk, Viti came to Richmond Hill by way of Savannah. He was joined by the “Mike’s Hiking for Heroes” team, including West Point football teammate and fellow war veteran and field artillery officer Mark Faldowski,
West Point, it seems, is a small world.
Faldowski is brother of Julie Faldowski Pryor, whose husband is Captain Matt Pryor, another West Pointer and war veteran and friend of Viti and Faldowski. Together the Pryors own CrossFit High Tide, a fitness center on Thunderbird Drive not far from the 144 exit off I-95.
To Faldowski Pryor, getting involved in the project was a must-do. “When my brother said he and Mike were going to be hiking around the country, Matt and I wanted to know how we could help,” she said, so they did, to the point of raising money for the project.
It became a chance for the team to meet people interested in Viti’s “Mike’s Hiking for Heroes,” which is the first project of Legacies Alive, the nonprofit group founded by Viti and Faldowski. The hike was Viti’s idea, “but Mark (Faldowski) refined it,” he said.
And if part of the plan is simply to remind people of the human cost of the Global War on Terror, the more important part of that plan is to provide support to the families of those who don’t need reminding just how much the war has cost.
Faldowski, who graduated from West Point in 2009 the year after Viti and served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, said Gold Star families such as that of Capt. Matthew Freeman, the Marine who won the Bronze Star in the Aug. 7, 2009 battle in which he was killed, are why they walk.
His parents, Gary and Lisa Freeman, whose Matthew Freeman Project has raised thousands of dollars for various causes ranging from school supplies for the children of Afghanistan to handmade bears for children of Gold Star families created from the uniforms of fallen service members, weren’t able to make Monday’s event due to an illness in the family, but met privately with the group Sunday, Faldowski said.
But there was a Gold Star family there. Bill and Lynn Knutson drove down from Bluffton, S.C., to attend Monday’s event at CrossFit. To them, Viti’s hike is a reminder their daughter, Capt. Sara Knutson-Cullen, won’t be forgotten.
“It’s nice to know somebody remembers her,” Lynn Knutson said. “And all of the fallen soldiers.”
Their daughter was an Army aviator who was killed in March 11, 2013, just two months after deploying to Afghanistan from Hunter Army Airfield and less than six months after marrying fellow officer, Capt. Chris Cullen, a Blackhawk pilot, when the two of them were stationed together at Fort Wainwright in Alaska. Cullen got out of the military so his wife could stay in.
She was 27.
And like the other 6,830 names on the list that Viti keeps updated on so he can write them on flags the team carries with them on their journey, Knutsen-Cullen has a story of service – and sacrifice.
She was a 2007 graduate of West Point who made her first official visit to West Point as a high school junior on Sept. 10, 2001. The next day changed the world.
And it cemented Knutsen-Cullen’s desire to do something for her country and for her city, said the Knutsons, both New Yorkers who have another daughter serving in the military – Maj. Kelly Bear, who is stationed in Hawaii.
“She’s originally from New York and was a big-city girl,” Bill Knutson said. “Later on we learned that event, 9-11, solidified her decision to go to West Point.”
The Knutsons said Sara Knutson-Cullen couldn’t be pigeonholed, or told what to do. Her parents told her they didn’t want her to become an MP or fly helicopters, but by the time she was a sophomore at the Academy she’d told them she’d be “branched” – Army lingo for the service in which an officer goes -- in one or the other.
“She was just that type of girl, very creative, very smart, a cheerleader, a member of the glee club, she had a beautiful voice” Bill Knutson said. “But as a woman she wanted to contribute as much as much as the guys did. She wanted to be in harm’s way, just like the guys did.”
Aviation, Lynn Knutson said, offered her daughter that chance. But after six years, Knutson-Cullen was thinking about getting out of the Army once her deployment–ended and had asked them to mail her books on the law. She’d majored in pre-law at West Point and was someone who’d take the opposing view on just about anything just to play devil’s advocate.
“Just for arguments sake,” Bill Knutson said. “She loved to argue. She’s a special kid.”
She also was a classmate of Faldowski’s and Viti, whom she knew.
“As soon as I saw (Viti’s) face, I knew him because Sara used to talk about him,” Lynn Knutson said. “She said even though he’s a football player, he’s just a regular guy who does duty with the rest of us.”
For Viti, the biggest surprise of the journey has been the reaction of the Gold Star families, 60 of whom he and his team have connected with so far.
“We didn’t expect how inviting they’ve been and how much they’ve wanted to be involved,” Viti said. “They’ve sought us out and taken us to dinners, they’ve taken us to their homes, to town home meetings, to city council meetings and to memorials in their towns. They’ve really connected with us, and they’ve found the hike tells the story of their service and sacrifice appropriately, and they feel it’s been a tool helping them recover and heal by honoring the service of a loved one.”
Viti paused. “I think that’s their biggest fear, that their loved one’s service gets forgotten and lost in 13 years of war.”
The Knutsons, who say they prefer visiting Warriors Walk on Fort Stewart – where a tree was planted in their daughter’s honor – to her grave at Arlington National Cemetery praised Fort Stewart for its handling of their daughter’s death.
“The people at Fort Stewart have been absolutely wonderful to us,” Bill Knutson said. “Throughout this whole ordeal. The support is there. The Army has been absolutely wonderful to us.”
But that doesn’t make it any easier for families such as the Knutsons to come to terms with what happened, and why.
“My thoughts on this are our Presidents are Commanders in Chief … he’s the boss,” Lynn Knutson said. “Do I wish she hadn’t gone? As a parent, I wish she hadn’t … and she had the option to stay as a rear detachment person, but if I’d told her to stay, she’s have said, ‘no, it’s my job to go.’ As I parent I wish she hadn’t of gone, but that’s what she wanted to do. And she’d have gone.”
Bill Knutson said he’d prefer to think the sacrifice of so many wasn’t in vain.
“Politics aside, we’ve lost a lot of good people, a lot of very talented, good people, and that hurts. I hope it’s for something,” he said. “I hope that something good comes out of it and 10 years from now it’s not the same as it was 10 years ago, but I personally think it’s going to be the same. But there are a lot of families in the same boat we are.”
Viti and his team may not meet them all, but it seems it won’t be for lack of effort. He began the walk, he said, because when he got out of the Army he still wanted to give something back. And, Viti needed a mission.
“The thing that was missing as camaraderie,” Viti said. “That sense of brothers and sisters in service.”
So, the idea of the hike was born, evolved and began.
“One of the promises I made to myself was I wasn’t going to leave military service in the rear view mirror,” Viti said. “I’m a big proponent of philanthropy and I always wanted to give something back. To me, the group that needs the most attention are the Gold Star families of the 6,830 people we’ve lost. I wanted to connect that with the public and let them know these are families in your community and some of them probably need your help.”
He and Faldowski will end this project at the Army-Navy game because they played football for Army, and that means something. The final two kilometers will, like the others, be dedicated to the memory of a servicemember killed in the Global War on Terror.
The next-to-last name on Viti’s handwritten list of names that will be that of former Navy quarterback J.P. Blecksmith, a Marine officer killed in Iraq in Nov. 11, 2004 in battle in Iraq. The last name will be that of Army 1stLieutenant Chase Pransicki, a teammate of Faldowski’s and Viti’s at West Point who was killed June 27,2012 in Afghanistan, three days into his deployment after he volunteered to lead a patrol and his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device.
“We’ll walk that last kilometer in his honor,” Viti said.
If the Knutsons are any indication, it will mean the world to Prasnicki’s family. They find comfort in what Viti and his team of hikers are doing and did for them.
“Every time someone remembers, it makes you feel there are people out there besides us will remember Sara. Of course, her family’s always going to remember,” Lynn Knutson said. “But it’s nice to know her legacy will live on through somebody else.”
For more information about the project, visit http://www.mikeshikingforheroes.com//.