For Ronan resident Chuck Lewis, returning servicemen and women are just as much “fallen warriors” as those who didn’t make it home alive, and he has made it his mission to help the survivors.
Lewis is walking across the nation, from Everett, Wash., to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., raising money for veterans’ charities and quietly spreading the word that “you are not forgotten.”
For many veterans, returning home after a deployment does not mean a ticker-tape parade. There are no hero’s welcomes, no speeches and accolades, no fancy dinner. There is just a return to “normal” life, with kids to take to school, jobs to find and an endless stream of “fix-its” around the home.
And for many veterans, a return home does not mean an end to fighting, either. There is a constant fight to deal with experiences no one else shares and a constant fight to return to that “normal” life when they don’t feel normal at all.
“In Ronan, we had two Marines come home in the last two years,” Lewis said. “One came home missing both legs from an improvised explosive device. He had a great homecoming and everybody was there for him.
“Then last summer, we had another Marine come home. When he came home, he was physically intact. He did four years in the Marine Corps and two tours in Afghanistan. He separated from the Corps June 3, came home June 4 and we buried him June 30. He took his own life because he got lost in the shuffle. He was 22 years old, and he had a young son.”
A former Marine and Vietnam veteran himself, 62-year-old Lewis understands what it’s like to serve and what it’s like to try to restart life after service. Before he took his first step, Lewis began by standing.
“The whole thing started on a Christmas morning,” Lewis said. “My wife and I don’t have kids at home anymore, so we didn’t really have anything to do on Christmas. So I decided I was going to go stand in the street. I had a little sign that said, ‘Standing here today in respect for those away.’ I remember what it was like being away from home on the holidays.”
From that Christmas morning on the street in his dress blues, Lewis started standing at memorials and veterans’ events, and the more he stood, the more money people would give him.
“I decided I needed to do something with all this money, so I started looking into various charities and donating it to them,” Lewis said.
And rather than just stand around and answer questions, Lewis decided to hit the road and reach a broader audience.
“I’ve raised about $5,000 so far for charities,” Lewis said. “I donate all of it to organizations that serve surviving service members and have a low overhead. I want the money people give me to go to serving the people it’s supposed to, not to trinkets and gifts to donors.”
So far, Lewis has walked about 560 miles over four weeks, and he expects the entire journey to take six months. He’s hoping in that time to raise $50,000 for those charities.
“I take donations in cash, on my website, or I can even swipe credit cards,” Lewis said. “But I never ask for money, and the money I get goes to those charities, not to support me on the road.”
His donors come to him, mostly out of curiosity, thanks to the cart he pushes. Decked out with small service flags and large Christian and American flags, the cart is designed to draw attention. Donated by Sportsman and Ski Haus in Kalispell, it’s not only his walking advertisement, it is also his home on the road.
“The cart weighs about 140 pounds and it’s got my tent, a cook stove, sleeping bag and pad, food and a solar charger for my smartphone,” he said.
That smartphone allows him to update his blog along his journey and even allows people to track him online, with location updates every 10 minutes.
On his journey, Lewis gives presentations at schools or civic groups, and tries to spread the word that patriotism isn’t dead and veterans should never be forgotten. Friday he took a brief break from walking as he spoke to students at Marion School and left to a chorus of “ooh-rahs” from excited schoolchildren.
“One of the best things about doing this is when someone stops me on the street and asks me what I’m doing,” Lewis said. “I explain what it’s all about and they go away, but then they come back with their kids.
“I’m not a great speaker, so I try to lead by example, and it means a lot that people would want me to speak to their children or trust me with their money, without really knowing me. It’s a real honor to be able to do this.”
Follow Lewis’ trek, get regular updates or donate online at www.walkingforthefallen.com.