ITASCA STATE PARK, Minn. -- A U.S. Navy combat veteran's planned swim from the headwaters of the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico began Saturday morning in Itasca State Park.
Chris Ring plans to swim the entire length of the Mississippi River to honor and bring awareness to American families who have lost someone in the war on terror.
Ring -- along with the organization he represents, Legacies Alive -- wants to use this challenge to connect as many Gold Star families as possible across the country.
Ring decided to take on the task of swimming the 2,552 miles from the river's source to its mouth to help families who have lost sons, daughters, husbands and wives in combat. He plans on swimming about 16 miles a day.
“This is something any true American patriot would be drawn to – supporting our fallen heroes, keeping their legacies alive and supporting the families they left behind,” Ring said.
After first swimming across Lake Itasca, Ring made a statement of thanks to the crowd gathered at the headwaters monument, posed for some photographs, then began his swim in the shallows of the Mississippi River.
“It’s nice to finally be here and to do such an important event to honor such great families,” Ring said before entering the water.
He acknowledged the daunting task of what he’s doing but insists his journey -- called "2015 Legacy Challenge: Swim For Their Sacrifice" -- is not so much about the swim itself but about the families Legacies Alive is honoring.
“I’m not trying to set a record. I’m not trying to be the fastest person,” Ring said. “It’s just more to connect and unite as many families as possible.”
Mark Faldowski, co-founder of Legacies Alive, started the organization with Mike Viti in 2014. As the combat veterans both transitioned out of the military after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, they wanted to do something to help families who lost loved ones.
“We wanted to bring them together and honor the sacrifice they’ve given,” Faldowski said.
That’s when they came up with the idea for the first Legacy Challenge: Hiking for Heroes. Viti walked more than 4,400 miles around the United States to honor the 6,843 service members killed during the war on terror.
Ed Blecksmith, who came to watch the swim’s kickoff from his home in Utah, became a Gold Star father when he lost his youngest son, James (J.P.), who was killed in Iraq on Veterans Day in 2004, while the family lived in San Marino, Calif.
“I wish I weren’t a Gold Star family. J.P. was a great kid. He was outgoing. He was humble and had a great sense of humor,” Blecksmith said of his son, who played quarterback at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Blecksmith said his son had two goals in going to Iraq.
“He told me, ‘I want to lead my men effectively in combat and I want to bring them all home alive,’” Blecksmith recalled. “And they all did come home alive, except for him. He did not.”
Mike and Mariann Perich drove from Pittsburgh to help support the swim. Their son, Michael Perich, went missing in 2008, along with three others during what the military described as a U.S. Coast Guard classified operation.
“We’re just trying to help Chris get down the river with as much support as we can muster up for these guys,” Mike Perich said of Ring and Legacies Alive. “They’re just an awesome group of guys. The most incredible guys I’ve ever met.”
Saturday’s swim started on the 71st anniversary of D-Day, and Ring said he plans to finish at the Gulf of Mexico on Veteran’s Day.
To read more about Legacies Alive and to follow the swim, go to www.legaciesalive.com.