When Mike Viti returned to civilian life after being discharged from the Army last August, he was surprised at how little the American public seemed to think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Instead we're more focused on a reality TV star or the NFL draft, like that's the most important thing going on," Viti said, at a restaurant in Crescent City on his travel through town. "Our priorities are out of whack."
To bring the combat casualties and their families back into the forefront of the minds of Americans, Viti started "Mike's Hiking for Heroes," a 7,100-kilometer hike across the country - at least one kilometer for each of the 6,803 service members killed during the Global War on Terror.
The 7andfrac12;-month trek started on April 26 in DuPont, Wash., and headed south along I-5 to Highway 199, where Viti cut to the coast and spent a night in Crescent City. In a carefully laid out schedule, Viti plans to continue south to San Diego, then walk east to Georgia and then up the East Coast to Baltimore, where the hike will come to a close on the 50-yard line of the Army/ Navy football game.
"Mike's Hiking for Heroes" is catalogued atmikes
hikingforheroes.comand on Facebook.
Viti's main objective is to honor the individual legacies of each service member killed and also to rally support for the families left behind, whom Viti thinks don't always receive enough attention.
"The biggest tragedy of 12 years of war is the families that are left footing the bill afterward," Viti said. "There's blood of 7,000 people, and that's 7,000 families that paid the ultimate sacrifice."
Partnering with the charity Freedom Has a Face, Viti, who lives in Las Vegas with his wife Laura, hopes to raise awareness and support for these families.
When Alex Larson, a recently discharged combat vet from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, heard about Viti's project, he was on board in less than 24 hours, dedicated to hitting the road as Viti's support and gear vehicle, going from stop to stop to spread the cause.
"We both feel the disconnect in the American public," Larson said, who, like Viti, experienced a fair share of losses of friends by fire.
Every day, Larson and Viti write down 35 names of service members killed in action on an American flag that Viti hikes with, one name for each kilometer walked that day. They figure they'll go through 14 flags total.
"We're walking for each individual," Viti said. "Each one of those guys gets a kilometer. We're walking in their honor that day."
Sometimes the mother of a fallen soldier has actually written the name of their son on the flag, one of the many interactions Larson and Viti have been having with "Gold Star" families, a term for the immediate family of fallen soldiers.
"The most powerful thing is that several family members have said that it's been very therapeutic talking to us," Viti said, adding that families have said that through the actions of Larson and Viti their memory is kept alive. "'You're a complete stranger yesterday but today you're doing this for my son or my husband,' and that's pretty cool."
Larson said when they are talking to families they always focus on who each soldier was as an individual person in life.
"We've all experienced loss in one capacity or another, so none of us really wants to talk about it too much. We just want to talk about their personal legacy and talk about the family as a whole," Larson said. "They're inspiring families. Very powerful."
With recent criticisms of inadequate services through the Department of Veteran Affairs, Viti said that it won't get better until the American people make it a primary issue.
Gold Star families do receive money from the military, but Larson said that what's more important is a reminder that many families are still struggling to "find a new normal."
"There's no monetary value that is going to cover the cost of the sacrifice that they have made. You can't fill that hole with money or dollar signs," Larson said. "While it may not be in the front your mind. It's always going to be in the front of their minds."
Although combat operations are coming to a close at the end of 2014, Viti said, "there's not going to be a ticker tape parade. There's not going to be a peace treaty signed or a declaration of victory," making it even more important to remind people of the losses felt in gold star families.
Even beyond this cross-country awareness campaign, Larson and Viti are planning some memorial projects to honor the individual soldiers lost. A new baseball field in honor of a soldier who played ball is a possible project.
"The way I see it, there are 6,803 opportunities right now to do projects like that," Viti said. And one kilometer to walk for each.
Reach Adam Spencer firstname.lastname@example.org .