With an American flag neatly penned with hundreds of names, folded with care and tucked in his backpack, Mike Viti braved the railroad tunnels of the Cuesta Grade coming into San Luis Obispo on Friday.
On Sunday, he hiked the narrow-shouldered rolling hills of the canyon roads on Highway 227 going toward the South County.
The trek across the Central Coast is only a tiny portion of Viti’s ambitious plan to travel coast to coast on foot on a mission to meet and build support for the families of soldiers who have lost their lives.
Six days a week, the former star football player and Army veteran is hiking from Seattle to Baltimore, racking up a kilometer for each of the nearly 7,000 members of the U.S. armed forces killed in active duty during the U.S. wars since Sept. 11, 2001.
“Transitioning out of the military last spring,” Viti said, “I realized how important those people were that I served with and how much those guys and their families have taken on over the last 13 years.
“I just thought it was an injustice that those families aren’t getting the attention and recognition they deserve.”
At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Viti was a fullback and team captain under Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh, who was the offensive coordinator for the Black Knights for two seasons before taking over the Mustangs in 2009.
Viti’s mission is extremely personal to Walsh, whose son Luke, 34, served in Iraq when Walsh was coaching at Army.
“We had a son serve, and he fortunately came back in one piece emotionally and physically, but he wears a couple of bracelets that represent the guys that he knew,” Walsh said. “Having Mike here is inspirational for us and emotional for us.
“Every time I wake up and think I’m having a bad day, I’m going to think about what he’s doing and how it should be an inspiration to all of us.”
Among soldiers killed who both Viti and Walsh knew were former Army quarterback Chase Prasnicki, a lieutenant who was killed in an IED attack just days after being deployed in Afghanistan in 2012.
Walsh’s wife, Jody, was one of the people who joined Viti as he walked from San Luis Obispo to Arroyo Grande on Friday afternoon.
Along for the duration is former Army Ranger Alex Larson, who linked with Viti through mutual friend Mark Faldowski, another former Army football player helping back Viti’s hike. Larson is responsible for the logistics of the trek, which includes finding camp sites and routes on the circuitous journey.
Each travel day, Viti, Larson and Shawn Patterson, a recent addition to the caravan and a former Army Ranger hoping to offer some short-term relief, write 35 new names onto their flag and set out on their 35-kilometer path.
Viti isn’t a recreational backpacker or distance runner, but he’s done plenty of hiking in the military, and he was an elite athlete.
Described by pro scouts as “having muscles coming out of his muscles,” Viti earned a free-agent contract with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills in 2008.
He did a yearlong tour in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 and earned a promotion to captain before moving to Las Vegas to join the private sector with wife and Berwick High (Pa.) sweetheart, Laura.
But in resigning from his corporate job this past year, Viti followed a pattern that began when the 9/11 attacks inspired him to alter his life’s path during his sophomore year of high school in 2001.
Viti was a star wrestler and football player who could have competed for many college programs. He was recruited by Villanova, Maryland and Penn State, but once West Point became a possibility, those other schools didn’t seem to matter much.
With President Barack Obama unveiling a plan to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of this year and having already pulled the U.S. out of Iraq in 2011, Viti became determined to dedicate his civilian life to raise awareness for the soldiers killed in action since 9/11.
“I didn’t want to do a project or something from a personal level that was going to be easy,” Viti said. “I didn’t want it to be one day, one week or a monthlong thing. I wanted it to be a sacrifice and something I had to walk away from a normal life to do. You have to make it a challenge if you’re really going to make a difference.”
From April to December, Viti plans to have hiked more than 4,400 miles. He’s gone more than 1,000 already.
His charted path takes him from the Pacific Northwest down the West Coast to San Diego, then through the Southwest during the summer’s hottest months to Texas and onward into the Southeast. He plans to travel up the East Coast and carry the game ball into the Army-Navy game in Baltimore on Dec. 13.
Along the way, he plans to meet between 50 and 75 families of fallen soldiers, determined to help those families secure a hometown memorial fitting to the personality of each person lost.
It might be the naming rights to a baseball field or a lane in a bowling alley. Viti is funding the hike on his own, and any donations he’s raised through his supporting charity he said will go toward making those memorials happen.
“It breaks my heart to see little kids without a dad,” Viti said. “Those kids are paying the price, and that’s what crushes me. But the families know what we’re doing, and they’re really connected and energized.
“The most powerful thing is the moms, the brothers and sisters say what we’re doing is very therapeutic. It’s not like we have to re-bury them. You’re celebrating them, and this feels good.”
How to help
To donate and learn more about Mike Viti and his hike, visit www.mikeshikingforheroes.com.
For updates on his journey and its route, follow Viti at:facebook.com/Mikeshikingforheroes twitter.com/fhafmikeshike instagram.com/mikeshikingforheroes