Walking for the fallen
by Sherrie Norris
Chuck Lewis, a veteran and former marine sergeant from Ronan, Montana, is walking across America to raise money and awareness for wounded and disabled veterans.
Lewis arrived in Boone on Tuesday afternoon with 2,600 miles and four months behind him -- "and only about four weeks and 600 more miles to go," he said. He plans to arrive at his final destination, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 25.
Lewis's "Walk for the Fallen - USA" began in Everett, Washington on March 31, and will have taken him through 14 states "and every kind of weather imaginable" by journey's end, he said.
A Vietnam veteran and member of the Montana Honor Guard who retired as an electrical engineer with the Department of Defense, Lewis is making the trip on foot. He pushes a converted jogging stroller filled with personal items and covered with flags representing the military, as well as the American and Christian flags.
A tent, a single-burner stove, a solar-panel for his I-Pad, a change of clothing, nonperishable food and "plenty of water" are just a few necessities found in his self-sustaining vehicle.
He has added numerous mementos from well wishers along the way -- decals and good luck tokens, as well as keepsakes from families of fallen veterans, including dog tags and captain's bars, to be placed at the wall.
Having planned to start his journey on April 1, Lewis, was asked why he chose April Fools Day. "I didn't want anyone to think it was just a big joke, so I pushed it back one day. Then, people wondered why Easter Sunday?"
Somehow, that day seemed more appropriate, Lewis said.
Nearly every town has welcomed him with open arms, if not with a a few curious glances.
"No one has threatened me, flipped me off or cursed me," Lewis said on Tuesday, as he stood beside a busy N.C. Hwy. 105 near Boone, undaunted by rush-hour traffic. "People have either embraced me or ignored me. "
With a carefully mapped-out plan, Lewis stayed north for hundreds of miles, mainly to visit the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago before "dropping south," he said, through Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.
His plans for North Carolina centered upon a visit to a terminally ill comrade in Jacksonville, with whom he served. "From there, it will just be a two-week walk on to Washington," he said.
Lewis frequently phones ahead to towns with military organizations, such as VFW or American Legion, where he knows he will be welcomed.
Such was the case this week, as members of the VFW Post 7031 in Boone met him near the city limits, fed him dinner and provided lodging at a local hotel.
"We are just thrilled to be here for him," said VFW canteen manager, Helena Becker-Rush."
That's the way it's been along the way, Lewis said. "The hospitality has been great. I've been able to visit with veterans, been asked to speak in schools and organizations, and met hundreds of people whose lives have been affected by war."
Despite offers to "stay over" during his stops, Lewis knows he must log in at least 25 miles a day to stay on schedule.
Before Boone, he spent a day visiting the Veteran's hospital in Johnson City, Tenn., and spent the night at a Roan Mountain church.
"I have the utmost respect for every last veteran, so to be out here as a brother representing them, is the best thing I know to do," he said.
Lewis has raised about $33,000 of his $50,000 goal, which he feels confident will be met within the next month.
"Every dime I raise goes to help the veterans. It's not for me or this trip," he said. "I don't spend anything out here that I wouldn't spend at home."
He accepts cash and checks along his walk, and he can swipe a credit card, too. Donations can also be made online at his website.
He's trekked across the country in snow, in nearly unbearable heat and humidity, in rain, sleet and hail. "The heat slowed me down a bit," he said, "but I kept drinking water and moving on."
HIs only "bump in the road" required emergency room treatment in Sycamore, Ill., where he was diagnosed and treated for a kidney stone. Two days later, he was back on track.
He's had no "close calls" he said, and believes that God has kept a close watch over him.
Not just about fundraising, Lewis said, his walk has a four-part purpose which includes raising awareness about the rising rate of veteran suicides, about patriotism and survivors' guilt.
"I am a Vietnam veteran, but that doesn't mean I know what it's like for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," said Lewis. "I am not skilled to help them, but I can walk and raise the money for those groups that know how to help."
Money he raises in each state will be returned to the same state's
military organizations, Lewis said.
Sleeping at or near a church, either in his tent or on the church floor, has been his main lodging source, but he has enjoyed a good night's rest occasionally when someone invites him in or provides an overnight stay at a local hotel.
And food? He is able to prepare his own, but he loves a Golden Corral buffet, Subway, or McDonalds. "Those are my favorite places," he said.
Motivated to walk
Before his journey, Lewis often stood in highly visible locations around his hometown, dressed in full uniform, to raise money for wounded and disabled servicemen.
The suicide of a young Veteran just days after coming home from Afghanistan, spurred Lewis into action on a higher level.
"At that point, I realized how big this problem was and that I needed to do something to bring attention to it across the whole nation. We can't know what they are going through, but we can try to help," Lewis said. "More soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan commit suicide than the number who have been lost in combat."
When he first mentioned his cross-country idea to his wife, he said, "She thought I was nuts."
He has seen her only twice since he left home and admits their separation is the hardest part of his journey.
"We talk on the phone every day, sometimes twice a day, and she will meet me in Washington," he said. She also follows the tracking device on his website that pinpoints his location every 10 minutes.
Six months is a long time to be away from home and not see his wife and children, Lewis said. "But, then I think about the men and women serving overseas, and I think about the 40 years I've had that my friends I lost in Vietnam will never have. When I remember that, six months doesn't seem that long."
"Walking for the Fallen -- USA" is a non-profit charitable corporation.
For more information, to make a donation or to track Lewis's trip, visit http://www.walkingforthefallen.com.
Checks may be sent to "Walking for the Fallen -- USA," P.O. Box 581 Ronan, MT 59864. Credit card donations may be made by calling (406) 270-5735.