When 2005 Trinity High School graduate Mark Faldowski learned of his best friend’s mission to hike 4,414 miles solo, Faldowski thought he was crazy.
But within 24 hours, Faldowski joined forces with his former U.S. Military Academy football teammate, Michael Viti, to pursue the ambitious voyage in memory of fallen soldiers. On April 26, Viti embarked on a trip from DuPont, Wash., to Baltimore, Md.
The duo launched their project, “Mike’s Hiking for Heroes,” in February. By April, Faldowski was accompanying Viti on the first 220 miles of the trip.
Viti departed with only a backpack, traveling between 22 to 25 miles a day.
Their initiative is funded by “Freedom has a Face,” a nonprofit organization based in Spokane, Wash.
The organization collects money for deceased veteran commemoratives. The initiative fosters a unique mission.
Instead of fundraising for names engraved on a monument, “Freedom has a Face” strives to create tributes that embody the life of a particular soldier.
Viti and Faldowski’s journey fits perfectly with the organization’s individualized approach, as Viti plans to dedicate each kilometer hiked to a U.S. service member killed in the War on Terror – totaling around 7,100 kilometers.
Both men also hope the trip will raise awareness for fallen soldiers and their families.
“The fact of the matter is, I’ve been deployed three times and … I know that the war is on the back page,” Faldowski said. “But it’s still pretty close to me.”
He explained people still ask whether he will be deployed to fight the war in Iraq, when U.S. involvement there officially ended in 2011.
Viti, a Berwick native, was in the 4th Infantry Division stationed in Fort Carson, Colo.
He served his tour in Arghandab River Valley, Afghanistan, from 2010 to 2011 and left the army in May 2013 with the rank of captain.
He then accepted a position as regional director at Hospital Corporation in Las Vegas.Viti put his career pursuits on hold to focus wholeheartedly on the hike.
Faldowski was raised in South Strabane Township and is the son of Damon and Dianne Faldowski. Damon Faldowski is partner in Phillips and Faldowski law firm in Washington.
He is currently serving in 2nd Battalion, 75th Infantry Regiment in Fort Lewis, Wash.
Faldowski participated in three combat tours – one in Iraq and two in Afghanistan – from 2010 to 2013.
Faldowski, a captain, plans to leave the Army in mid-June.
Currently, Faldowski drives along Viti’s route, alerting media outlets of Viti’s appearance.
As of May, Viti is hiking the length of Oregon on his 232-mile journey. By June, he hopes to be in California, Texas by August and the Carolinas by October.
If Viti meets all his mile markers, he will be in the stands of Cheney Stadium for the Army-Navy football game Dec. 13.
Before taking to the road each morning, Viti writes the names of each fallen soldier in whose memory he will be hiking for that day on an American flag.
Viti tracks his progress on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
His daily Facebook posts are attracting more than 3,300 “likes.”
“Facebook is an easy way to keep people who may not have access involved,” Viti said.
Roughly an hour ahead of Viti drives Alex Larson, director of special projects for “Mike’s Hiking for Heroes.”
Larson acts as a guide, ensuring that Viti receives food and lodging at his destination each night.
Viti stays with families who lost a loved one in the war.
Most of the families Viti visits recently suffered the loss of a child, with the exception of a recently widowed mother.
Viti’s biggest challenge thus far is adjusting to the emotional climate of each household.
“Everyone expresses grief differently,” Viti said.
Though, according to Faldowski, Gold Star families, those who lost relatives in action, all bear the same worrisome thought.
“Gold Star families’ number one fear,” Faldowski said, “is that their husband or son’s name will never be said again.”
The Pennsylvania natives are ensuring this anxiety never becomes a reality. Fueled by positivity, Viti remains on track for Maryland.
“We are simply a vehicle to raise money and awareness for this cause,” Faldowski said.
“We have huge hearts and a ton of motivation.”