A former Army captain embarking on a cross-country hike to honor fallen troops took the first steps of his journey Saturday in DuPont alongside a widow whose husband suffered deadly wounds in Afghanistan exactly one year ago.
Those steps with Krista Simpson captured for Afghanistan veteran Mike Viti the reason he quit his civilian job in Las Vegas to spend the next eight months hiking across the states to memorialize the 6,803 military service members who have died overseas since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“A big piece of it for me is not only the individual legacies of the guys we lost, but really the families they leave behind,” he said.
His trek began at the weekly Wear Blue Run to Remember gathering in DuPont’s Powderworks Park, where Simpson has found comfort since the death of her husband on May 1, 2013. The attack that led to his death took place on April 26 of last year.
“I can’t think of a better place to be,” Viti said, with the running group that sprouted in DuPont in 2010 among families of a hard-hit Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
Viti, a former captain of West Point’s football team from Berwick, Pa., put his career on hold for his project because a feeling came over him that something was missing from his civilian life.
He noticed the country was paying less attention to the war in Afghanistan. He didn’t want people to forget the sacrifices of the fallen.
“We’re still at war and a lot of people who have put a lot into the last 12 years,” Viti, 28, said. “I just asked myself, ‘If you think this is an issue or something that deserves attention drawn to it, what are you going to do about it?’”
He called a friend at JBLM two months ago to float his idea: He’d walk across the country by himself as a tribute to families who’ve lost loved ones at war.
Capt. Mark Faldowski played devil’s advocate for a weekend when he and Viti talked through the idea.
Faldowski, a Special Operations Forces officer, brought up all the ways Viti’s plan could fail. It’d mean giving up the great start he had in the private sector and spending time away from his wife, Laura.
Faldowski also introduced Viti to Simpson. Faldowski had seen her speak to Army casualty assistance officers and knew she had a powerful story for Viti.
Viti decided to commit himself to the trek and link it with a nonprofit group that aims to raise funds for individual memorials to fallen troops in their hometowns. Faldowski has been volunteering for the nonprofit, Freedom Has a Face.
The partnership seemed to embody Viti’s ambition to remember each of the dead as individuals.
“It’s more than just a wall with 6,800 names on it,” he said.
They got another assist from former Army Ranger Alex Larson. Larson thought it wouldn’t be safe for Viti to travel alone. He volunteered to go ahead of Viti by car looking for lodging and opportunities to talk about fallen troops along the route.
Larson had gone home to Michigan since leaving JBLM to prepare for graduate school. To him, civilians seemed disconnected from the wars.
In the military, “You’re surrounded by it,” he said. “When you separate and you transition, everybody is very respectful, but you kind of feel that absence. You notice it, you notice that it doesn’t have the impact you thought it would.”
Viti’s project fulfilled Larson’s own drive to remember his friends who died.
“This mission is worth it, and there’s no better way to honor the fallen,” he said.
Their route will take them down the West Coast to San Diego. They plan to head east through Texas to Georgia before more moving north and concluding the hike at the Army-Navy football game in Baltimore.
Faldowski had a warm welcome in the South Sound this week. His supporters held a fundraiser for him Friday night in Tacoma. Simpson’s 4-year-old son, Michael, took the microphone and helped out with an auction.
On Saturday morning, about 250 people turned out for the Wear Blue run. Every week, friends and relatives of fallen troops call out the names of the loved ones they’ve lost to the war. Simpson’s son called out his dad’s name.
Viti told the group he was proud to begin his hike with them. He brought out a U.S. flag and Wear Blue participants wrote names of fallen troops on its stripes.
“We’re here honoring each service member who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Viti said.
Simpson, an Olympia resident, wore a Wear Blue shirt with her husband’s name on it and the gold star necklace she received after his death. The star symbolizes her sacrifice. It’s decorated with the Special Forces motto, “de oppresso liber,” which means to free the oppressed.
She’s proud of her husband and the choices he made to fight for his country in the elite 1st Special Forces Group. Viti’s hike, she said, would help her husband be remembered in the right way.
Viti “wants to make sure that my husband and every other service member won’t be forgotten, and we won’t be forgotten,” she said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646