By now, chances are most folks have heard of Mike Viti, the former Army fullback, West Point graduate and member of the United States 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 — 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. The trek began in DuPont, Washington, just outside Seattle, and will end Dec. 13 at the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia.
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, and then headed east, crossing the country one day at a time. Rain or shine, he walks 22 miles — or 36 kilometers — a day, six days a week. And he still has to walk north.
On 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 Capt. Matt Pryor, another West Pointer, 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 Interstate 95.
To Faldowski Pryor, getting involved in the project was a must.
“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,” Viti 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 families 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. However, they met privately with the group Sunday, Faldowski said.
But there was a Gold Star Family in attendance Monday. Bill and Lynn Knutson drove from Bluffton, South Carolina, to attend the event at CrossFit. To them, Viti’s hike is a reminder that 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 a fellow officer, Blackhawk pilot Capt. Chris Cullen, 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 so he can write those names on flags the team carries with them on its journey, Knutsen-Cullen has a story of service — and sacrifice.
She was a 2007 West Point graduate who made her first official visit to the school as a high-school junior Sept. 10, 2001. The next day changed the world and 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 another.
“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 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 her parents 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 argument’s sake,” Bill Knutson said. “She loved to argue. She’s a special kid.”
She also was a classmate of Faldowski’s and Viti’s, both of 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 60 Gold Star Families 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-hall 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.”
“I think that’s their biggest fear, that their loved one’s service gets forgotten and lost in 13 years of war,” Viti said.
The Knutsons, who said 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 throughout this whole ordeal,” Bill Knutson said. “The support is there. The Army has been absolutely wonderful to us.”
But that doesn’t make it any easier for families like 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 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 was 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 memories of servicemembers killed in the Global War on Terror.
The next-to-last name on Viti’s handwritten list is that of former Navy quarterback J.P. Blecksmith, a Marine officer killed Nov. 11, 2004, in battle in Iraq. The last name is that of Army 1st Lt. Chase Prasnicki, 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 who 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, go to www.mikeshikingforheroes.com.