Former U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Chuck Lewis is Walking for the Fallen USA.
A Vietnam veteran, Lewis, 62, of Ronan, Mont., stopped in Minot on his trek that started from Everett, Wash., on March 31, making a three-day stop at Ronan in April on the way east. He plans to end his walk in Washington, D.C., in September.
He told The Minot Daily News this past week, during an interview at the Staybridge Suites in Minot where he stayed for two nights to get out of the heavy rain, that he has a two-fold mission to raise awareness of the "Cost of Freedom" and to raise funds to help wounded and disabled veterans.
Former Marine Corps Sgt. Chuck Lewis, second from right, poses for a photo with Dave Bussard, right, general manager of the Staybridge Suites in Minot, and Staybridge Suites staff Tuesday. Lewis, who is Walking for the Fallen – USA, took a break from the rainy weather and stayed at the Staybridge Suites. Lewis, of Ronan, Mont., is on his way to Washington, D.C.
He is a member of two honor guards the Veterans Honor Guard of Polson-Ronan, Mont., and the Mission Valley Honor Guard in St. Ignatius, Mont.
He said when he first started with the honor guards he was the youngest member at 54 and now at 62 he still is one of the youngest members.
Lewis, who also served in the Navy Reserves, established the Montana Honor Guard website at (email@example.com) about five years ago.
He also developed a Facebook page about four years ago. "I started the Montana Honor Guard Facebook page to try to recruit for our own honor guards and also spark some interest across the country to see if we get more people to join honor guards or start their own honor guards," he said. He also started giving presentations to try to recruit people for honor guards.
Lewis said his inspiration to do a walk across the U.S. started about four years ago when he and his wife, Linda, found themselves home alone on Christmas Eve when none of their children were able to come home for the holidays.
"We were sitting there talking about what to do on Christmas morning and I said, 'You know, I'm going to go put my uniform on and stand on a street corner.' I made up a little sign that said, 'Standing here today in respect of those away.' The idea was that I remember what it was like being away on the holidays when I was in the service. So I just decided to go out and remind people," he said.
Lewis stood on the road where two highways, Highway 93 and Highway 35, came together between Ronan and Polson.
"It got to be kind of an annual thing where I started adding flags and I built what they call a Battle Cross," he said. The Battle Cross has boots, rifle, a helmet and all mounted on a 50-caliber ammo can.
"People would see me and as I added flags, people saw me better but they didn't really know what it was all about. Then I started transitioning from just remembering our military while they are away to honoring those that have fallen," Lewis said.
He said when most people think of the word "fallen," they think it is those who have been killed. He said fallen is those who could have been killed in action but also it's those incapacitated due to war, due to combat.
Continuing to tell about his project, Lewis added more flags to his display. "People kind of got a feel for what I was doing and they started giving me money," he said. "It was really quite remarkable to me. I'd say 99 percent of the people that handed money to me didn't even know me. It was really quite an honor that they would trust me to do the right thing with the monies that they were giving me."
Groups started inviting him to their events and he started going to street and trade fairs, and gun shows or whatever was happening. That resulted in more contributions made to him and his mission.
He contributed the money to programs to help veterans in his state.
"I'd been doing this all up and down western Montana," he said, then he decided "why not take it across the country? That's how it started."
He was also motivated to make the walk by the death of a Marine from western Montana who had served in Afghanistan. Within a month after leaving the service the Marine took his life. "No one knew he was home until the honor guard was called. That's what really set me off about walking across the country," Lewis said.
Since Lewis and his wife live near U.S. Highway 2, he decided to use that highway for his route.
Lewis pointed out during the interview that many service members are finely trained in their occupations and use much more sophisticated equipment than was available during his era in the military.
"Some of them are responsible for multimillion dollar machines planes, systems or whatever in a time you can't tell who the enemy is because they don't all wear black hats. The enemy today... hides behind women and children so our warfighters our warriors today they rely on each other for trust," Lewis said.
"But when they leave their military career, he said, they come into a society where the economy is relatively poor. "And what do they do?" he said. He said sometimes they have to take jobs that are far below what they did in the military when they were operating multimillion machines. And, he said, there's a question about what their purpose is today.
He said it's much like when he's walking on the highway, the cars are going by and he wonders if anyone really sees him or what he is doing. "Everybody's lives are so fast paced," he said.
Among the U.S. flag and other flags that he has on the cart that accompanies him on the road, Lewis has a Christian flag.
"I carry a Christian flag because a lot of times today I feel God is being left out of the equation and that's where our hope lies. If you don't have trust or purpose, then how about some hope," he said. He added, "The way I see it when the young men and women come home they should all be recognized and at least know that they are home."
Lewis, who normally covers about 25 miles a day, will cover 14 states during his walk. Any money contributed to him, he said, he plans to give to groups that help veterans in these states.
"This is the first walk and might be the last. You never know," he said.
When he gets to Washington, D.C., he said, "I want to see the Vietnam Memorial. I've never seen it."
Lewis said he has seen the traveling walls but has never seen the real one. "It's a goal for me," he said.