Growing up in Heath, Massachusetts, Keith Sherman rode his dirt bike dreaming of future adventures.
Now 46, the retired naval officer takes his Yamaha motorcycle and rides it across America, where the sons and daughters of Gold Star families once roamed.
“I ride my bike in their honor,” Sherman tells PEOPLE. “I want to see and feel why they wanted to be bigger than themselves and join the military.”
With Gold Star Dirt, a nonprofit Sherman launched last year, he has traveled some 50,000 miles and recorded the memories of fallen soldiers as told by their families in all 50 states.
After losing numerous soldier friends in combat and to suicide, Sherman was a broken man. He drank, divorced twice, was suffering from PTSD and had traumatic brain injury lesions. He got help, and after 26 years and over 600 military helicopter jumps, retired with a sense of purpose in 2018.
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“I was going to go back home,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I’ll stop by and talk to Gold Star families. Why don’t I do this nationwide?’”
After posting his story on Facebook, Sherman began hearing from the families. Using his military retirement and small donations to fund his trip, he headed east from San Francisco with a pup tent and bike on top of his car. Upon visiting the families, he says he “learned not to look away when they are crying.”
For Sherman, the most cathartic moment was when he landed in Alaska, and headed to the 4,000-foot mountain Gold Star Peak.
“I told the families, ‘I’m going to read your loved one’s name up on top of the mountain,’ ” he tells PEOPLE. “I climbed it with a Gold Star father. And when I got there, I read all the names aloud and videoed it for the families to see.”
Brian Baum lost his 38-year-old brother Ron in Iraq, and had trouble talking about his loss.
���You know good people when you meet them,” Baum tells PEOPLE of Sherman, to whom he talked for well over two hours. “Talking to him was heavy. He’s truly trying to give back. He’s a good man.”
Word spread about Sherman’s mission, and the Library of Congress asked that these legacy stories be preserved into the National Archives. They’ll be delivered on Nov. 1 at a ceremony with dignitaries and military families who have become Sherman’s friends, including Rebecca Nelson of Alabama.
Nelson’s son Travis, 19, was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.
“Keith was the first person I opened up to about my son,” she tells PEOPLE. “Him being retired Navy, he was so easy to talk to. The will that he had in telling the stories. He’s the first person in eight years to touch me. It was easy for me to share with him Travis’ story. The chance for Travis’ life to be included is an honor. For Keith to go out on his own is a selfless dedication. It’s remarkable what he has done.”
For more on Keith Sherman and other inspiring stories about the veteran community, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.