ALIQUIPPA, Pa. — Michael J. Perich of Center Township has been on an arduous journey the past 13 weeks, but called it a breeze compared to what his late son and other fallen heroes who lost lives in combat endured.
Since June 11, departing from San Diego, Calif., he’s ridden more than 2,600 miles by bicycle across the country to honor Michael R. Perich and all service personnel killed since 9/11.
After laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., he hopes to arrive Sept. 16 at Ground Zero, the World Trade Center site in New York City.
Reached by cell phone Sept. 1, Michael J. Perich, 66, apologizes for his breathlessness. Since early morning he’s been pumping the pedals. Now mid-afternoon, about 50 miles from his last overnight stop, he reaches Moundsville, W.Va., still about two weeks from his ultimate terminus.
“It’s something I wanted to do for my son,” he said, “to make everyone aware of what our families lost… I have to do my share. Try to just give back a little bit.”
He was 83 days into Cycle to Celebrate, but said he began training for this journey nearly 34 years ago when his son was born.
The young man, a 2002 graduate of former Center Area High School, adhered to faith, family and fitness, said his mother, Marian, from the couple’s home.
He entered the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and after graduating was employed by a company that performs contract work with the Navy, most of it “clandestine operations,” she said.
“We didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing. He could never tell us.”
On his 25th birthday, Sept. 28, 2008, Michael R. Perich and three other men vanished in a storm somewhere in the South China Sea.
“We were told it was a Category 5 typhoon somewhere between Malaysia, Taiwan and Okinawa,” Marian said. No remains were found.
After their son’s death, the Periches became actively involved in organizations and events supporting Gold Star families – those who lost loved ones in service to their country. One is nonprofit Legacies Alive founded by combat veterans after 9/11 to help these families and perpetuate memories of the nation’s fallen heroes.
In 2014, co-founder Mike Viti launched Legacy Challenges described as “endeavors that take physical and mental challenges to the extreme” in the belief that such sacrifices are “the best way to bring national awareness to its mission.”
“They just have big, open hearts, but they’re tough guys,” Marian said.
That April, Viti, commissioned as a second lieutenant after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, set foot from DuPont, Wash., on “Mike’s Hiking for Heroes,” and walked the perimeter of the United States – about 4,400 miles (more than 7,100 kilometers) to Baltimore, MD., (site of that year’s Army-Navy football game) in honor of service members killed in the Global War on Terrorism. At that time, more than 6,800 had perished. Along the way, Viti, who served in Afghanistan, met with 65 Gold Star families.
The following year, Chris Ring, a former Navy SEAL, honored fallen heroes by swimming the length of the Mississippi River – some 2,500 miles from the headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico – a journey that took about six months.
This year’s challenge – Cycle to Celebrate – is the idea of Kaye Jordan, a Gold Star mother from Weatherford, Texas, whose 19-year-old son, Army Pfc. Austin G. Staggs, was killed in action Nov. 29, 2010, in Afghanistan. Staggs was one of six gunned down by a rogue Afghan border policeman who fired on his American trainees.
Mother and son talked about visiting Ground Zero after Staggs’ deployment ended.
Her wish on this journey of healing is to connect and exchange stories with as many Gold Star families as possible, according to Legacies Alive.
Many Gold Star families are isolated, Marian said.
“As time goes on after the initial shock and burial and all the attention they’re getting, that kind of fades away and there they are. The additional support is something that could be uplifting to them,” she said. “The worst thing that a parent, Gold Star or otherwise, the worst thing is to have your child be forgotten.”
Every year, the Periches attend the Army-Navy football game, always in December, one of the most storied rivalries in college football. At a post-party for Gold Star families last year, they heard Jordan speak about Cycle to Celebrate. And that’s when a seed was planted. But it would be a few months before Michael J. told his wife he was going to be part of it.
“I never thought he would step up and do this ride,” she said. “Michael wasn’t talking about it until a few weeks before the ride. If he was thinking about it, he didn’t say.”
Marian said she and her husband, retired from American Airlines (formerly US Airways) are “casual” cyclists who ride occasionally on trails at Montour, North Park and Moraine State Park.
“My husband did not train at all. He bought a bike two weeks before the ride. He had it shipped to San Diego,” she said. “My husband was out of shape and about 50 pounds overweight.”
Well, not any more. Burning 4,500 calories a day, he’s dropped 40 pounds.
Many asked how he was able to undertake such a physical challenge, a trek that has taken him on interstates he shares with tractor-trailers; over rolling hills and curves; on roads with no shoulders; roads under construction; and through desert heat that saw temperatures climb to about 120 degrees.
“I say it’s on-the-job training. Sheer determination and willpower. That’s his personality. He’s determined,” Marian said.
The ride and meeting with Gold Star families makes him “feel like he’s serving something – a greater cause,” she said.
“He said, ‘Marian, I want to do this ride. I never served in the military. I’ve never done anything for my country. I want to do this to serve in the memory of Michael. If I can offer some of these families some comfort for a short period of time, it will make me feel like I’m serving.'”
Jordan and Michael J. are accompanied by Bryce Caldwell who travels in a support van carrying gear, refreshments and bike repair tools.
They stay in hotels, but occasionally some Gold Star families have hosted them overnight; some VFW posts have cooked lunches and dinners.
“We listen to their stories about their sons and daughters,” said Michael J.
“I wouldn’t be able to speak to people the way he does,” Marian said of her husband. “I well up with tears when they start talking about what happened to their kids.”
Every day Michael J.’s focus has been on his son. A son who faithfully attended Mass; always kept tabs on his younger sister’s athletic achievements at Robert Morris University where she was a standout in softball and basketball; asked his mother how she marinated steak; and called his grandparents at least once a week.
He planned to take his paternal grandfather, a World War II veteran who was part of the D-Day invasion, to Omaha Beach.
“Every day I think about him,” Michael J. said. “I miss him so much. He’s gotten me through this whole trip. … We don’t ever want them to be forgotten.”