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‘A club you don’t want to be a part of’

 

Michael Perich has paid his late son’s cellphone bill for nearly a decade, just to be able to hear his voice.

His son, 26-year-old Michael Richard Perich, disappeared eight years ago during a classified mission for the Navy in the South China Sea.

Perich, of Pittsburgh, is a Gold Star father, a term used for the family members of fallen American military men and women.

He and Gold Star mother Kaye Jordan of Weatherford, Texas, are spending several months bicycling across the country to honor their sons, and all of the military men and women killed since 9/11.

The pair traveled through the Albuquerque area earlier this week, around a month into the anticipated four-month journey.

The trek was made possible by Legacies Alive, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the memories of fallen soldiers through memorials and “Legacy Challenges” like the one Jordan and Perich have undertaken.

Legacies Alive’s mission also includes educating the public on what it means to be a Gold Star family.

“It’s a club you don’t want to be a part of,” Jordan said.

Jordan’s son, Army Pfc. Austin Staggs, was killed in Afghanistan in November 2010 when an Afghan police officer in training turned his gun on Staggs, 19, and five other soldiers, killing all six.

Kaye Jordan has collected a charm from Gold Star families she has met along the ride, each representing a fallen soldier. Pictured on the dog tag is her late son, Pfc. Austin Staggs.

On their journey, Jordan and Perich meet with other Gold Star families, including Don and Jo Ann Zembiec of Albuquerque, and have stayed in their homes. The Zembiecs lost their son, Marine Maj. Douglas Zembiec, in Iraq in 2007.

“It’s all about connecting with other families, raising awareness and sharing stories of their loved ones,” said Nicole Parke, executive director of Legacies Alive.

‘Their service wasn’t done’

Legacies Alive was founded in 2014 by combat veterans Mike Viti and Mark Faldowski.

“They felt like their service wasn’t done,” Parke said.

Viti, who served in the Army in Afghanistan, undertook the first Legacy Challenge in 2014, walking nearly 4,500 miles around the country and meeting with 65 Gold Star families.

In 2015, Navy veteran Chris Ring continued making the Legacy Challenge a tradition by swimming the entire length of the Mississippi River.

After meeting Viti last year, Jordan said, she was inspired to take on a challenge of her own.

Perich heard Jordan speak at the 2016 Army-Navy football game and decided to join her.

The two started in San Diego on June 11 and spent the next month pedaling around 30 miles a day through California, Arizona and New Mexico.

On Tuesday, Day 31 of the ride, the pair biked 32 miles and climbed 2,300 feet into Albuquerque.

“This isn’t supposed to be easy,” Jordan said.

On Wednesday, Jordan and Perich made their way to Santa Fe.

From there, they’ll take Route 66 to southern Illinois, and through Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

The last leg of their journey will take them through New Jersey and on a ferry to Manhattan, where they’ll officially end the challenge at One World Trade Center.

The terminus is of special significance to Jordan.

“When Austin came back from Afghanistan, we were going to go to One World Trade Center,” she said.

Jordan, Perich and the Zembiecs said that while the military helps families financially after the loss of a military service member, meeting with other Gold Star families has been the greatest source of healing and comfort for their families.

“In the whole context of everything, it’s a small group,” Perich said. “When I met Kaye and the Zembiecs and other families, that’s what helped me step out and move forward.”

Zembiec was the focus of national media attention after being credited with saving 25 men on the night of his death.

Although Legacies Alive and connecting with others who have experienced the loss of a military family member have been valuable resources, the grief of losing a child never goes away, Perich said.

“Sometimes it’s just like the mountain behind us,” he said, sitting in the Zembiecs’ living room in the foothills of the Sandias. “It’ll crush you some days.”

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