Early in 2014, Mark Faldowski (MBA ’17) and his best friend Mike Viti were feeling frustrated.
They had been recently discharged from the Army, where Faldowski had served as part of the Special Operations community, eventually joining the 75th Ranger Regiment, also known as the U.S. Army Rangers. He and Viti were looking to move into their next phase of life, which for Faldowski involved entering an MBA program.
The two went way back. They both are originally from Pennsylvania, they both played football at West Point, and they both served several deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. And they both lost good friends in combat.
As they chatted on the phone one night, Faldowski and Viti had a nagging feeling that although they officially were done with the military, the military wasn’t quite done with them.
On the phone, Viti told Faldowski there must be something they could do to pay tribute to the men and women who died in service to our country and support their Gold Star families — a term that goes all the way back to World War I, when families were given flags displaying a blue star for every member of the immediate family serving in the armed forces. If the loved one died, the blue star was replaced by a gold one. The flags were a way of letting the community know the price the family had paid to defend the country.
But what could they do?
“We are both from Pennsylvania, raised on the principle of an ethic of hard work that places value on doing, and not saying,” said Faldowski, who was living in Tacoma, Washington, at the time. “So Mike said on the phone that night, ‘What if I walked a kilometer for every person killed in Iraq and Afghanistan?’”
The two began to chart their course, and then took the most obvious action: They began walking.
Setting out from Seattle, they walked about 26 miles a day, making their way to San Diego, then across the country to Savannah, then ultimately up to Baltimore — a journey of some 4,496 miles ending in 2014 at the Army/Navy football game to honor Chase Prasnicki, their former Army football teammate, killed in Afghanistan. As they walked, they would Google “Gold Star families” in the particular hometowns they passed through.
“We would locate them, then go to their house and knock on their door, and say, thanks,” said Faldowski. “And at first it was like, ‘Who are you, what do you want, is the media here?’”
Perhaps not the warm, effusive greeting they hoped for, at least not initially. People didn’t know what to think. But as the journey continued — joined by a third friend, former Army Ranger Alex Larson — their tracks were slowly tracing a network for these Gold Star families to connect on a personal level that they hadn’t before.
“We set out on a mission to identify the needs of Gold Star families and to create a way to support those needs,” said Faldowski. “A common thread we kept hearing is that each of the families knows when a hero dies, but there wasn’t a network of support that they hoped for to connect them.” It often turned out that Faldowski’s little team of three — which he refers to as his “wolf pack” — was able to bring families together to sit down for dinner.
“We’d just connect the families and then continue to walk and network,” he said. “Before we knew it, the families started spreading the news among themselves about our cause. And then we just started to get crowds following us. We were so grassroots. Many times, we were invited to stay in the families’ homes at night. Other times, we had cots buckled down to the top of our ’95 Ford Explorer and would just sleep on the side of the road.
“I remember one night, as we left a family in Portland, the mom said she may have lost one son, but she’d gained three,” Faldowski continued. “She would call us on occasion just to say good night.”
About the time the trio reached southern Oregon, it occurred to Faldowski that they figuratively were at a crossroads. “I said to Mike, ‘We are creating something so much bigger than ourselves, something so much more important. Our mission won’t be accomplished when our walk is completed. It must continue,’” recalled Faldowski. In other words, no matter how far they walked, the bigger question was, what would happen when the journey was done?
They began talking about the meaning of a person’s legacy — what’s it’s made of, and how it’s best honored. And they realized that when it comes to commemorating a legacy, the expressions are as individual as the person and all the very many things that he or she ever lived for.
Faith, families, hometowns, schools, sports teams, hobbies, passions, buddies, dogs, and, yes, military service.
But they didn’t think a legacy is primarily about death.
“We are dedicated to honoring the living legacies of these men and women, not their deaths. We believe that it’s not about how these people died that tells the whole story of their lives,” said Faldowski. “If I were killed, I wouldn’t want to be remembered just for how I died or the fact that I was in the Army, but rather my contributions to my family, my community and my country.”
The journey took a turn. They realized that they needed to establish a more permanent base to operate from, an organization that would last beyond the walk. “Initially, we had no idea what a nonprofit organization was and decided it was time to get to work and find out.”
Legacies Alive was born and approved as a 501(c)(3) in October 2014, about six months after that first step. Its mission is to “provide unwavering support to Gold Star Families of the Fallen by ensuring the Legacies of our Fallen Heroes are forever alive.”
The group raises money through amazing physical challenges, such as the walk across America or a swim down the entire 2,552-mile length of the Mississippi River, which was undertaken by Navy veteran Chris Ring last summer.
As audacious as the challenges are, Faldowski said they’re just a means to an end. “It’s not about us, it’s not about a hike, it’s not about a swim,” he said. “Legacies Alive conducts extreme physical and mental challenges to create a platform for us to raise money and garner support for Gold Star families. To us, it’s not about what we do, but why we do it. LA is simply an opportunity for us to get someone to ask us, ‘You’re doing what?’ And that gives us 30 seconds not to talk about what we’re doing, but why — for us to raise awareness, to give back to these Gold Star families. And that’s simply it.”
To date, Legacies Alive has reached out to 526 Gold Star families and committed to completing eight legacy projects, a sampling of which is featured on the website, legaciesalive.com. There’s a description of the memorial honoring U.S. Army Specialist Chris Moon, who was drafted by the Atlanta Braves but chose to attend the University of Arizona on a baseball scholarship. He left college to enlist as a scout sniper in the 82nd Airborne Division. Moon was killed in action from wounds caused by an IED in the Arghandab River Valley of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, on July 13, 2010.
Another project in Weatherford, Texas, involved working with six Gold Star families to build Soldier Springs Park, a memorial to their collective loved ones. In New London, Minnesota, Legacies Alive helped the parents of Ryane Clark, a combat engineer assigned to the U.S. Army 27th Airborne Combat Engineer Battalion, complete a parking lot in his name. Clark had started the lot as an Eagle Scout project but wasn’t able to finish it. He died from wounds suffered in an enemy attack in Shekhabad, Afghanistan, on October 4, 2010.
These days, as Faldowski is finishing up his first year of the two-year Notre Dame MBA program, he also is busy working with the other members of the Legacies Alive team to develop the next phases of the organization. They plan to continue raising money through challenges, but they have a larger vision as well that includes building a Legacies Alive house, where Gold Star families can vacation and connect. The LA house has recently been approved by the organization’s board of directors, although its location hasn’t been finalized. The house will allow LA to affect 52 families each year and continue to grow the Legacies Alive family.
After he graduates, Faldowski plans to work in investment banking, and possibly eventually join a private equity firm. He’s also interested in starting yet another organization in addition to Legacies Alive and a business he founded earlier with his brother, D.J. Faldowski, a former Navy SEAL who is a first-year MBA candidate at the Wharton School.
But short term, long term, day in and day out, Faldowski intends to carry forward the legacies of our nation’s fallen heroes and support the families they leave behind.
“It means so much to them to see the name of their son, daughter, husband, wife, mother, father, their name in writing, or to talk about them,” Faldowski said. “And I can relate to a degree — my mom died of cancer when I was 16. Over time, it’s not that people forget, but through our actions, coupled with our passion, our organization is dedicated to keeping the legacies of our nation’s fallen heroes forever alive.”
The Salt & Light series features Mendoza faculty, staff, students and alumni who live out Christ's charge to make a difference in the world. See bizmagazine.nd.edu for more profiles.