COLUMBIA FALLS – On Saturday, Chuck Lewis was to be somewhere near Browning, either walking toward the town or away from it.
Almost every step he takes pulls him a couple of feet closer to his destination, but this is not a beeline journey, and not every single step does.
Besides, when you’re on a little ol’ 3,300-mile stroll across these United States, what’s another couple of miles?
Absolutely nothing for Lewis.
And so, last Tuesday, when Mother Nature was still battling valiantly to keep Montana’s long-awaited spring at bay, Lewis veered slightly off his Pacific-to-Atlantic trail when he reached Columbia Falls.
“Don’t worry,” Lewis tells a woman who marvels at the undertaking. “I chose a route that’s all downhill.”
He steered the baby stroller he is pushing off U.S. Highway 2 and down a side street. Was waylaid, briefly – this happens regularly when people spy a 62-year-old man pushing a baby stroller decorated in American and military flags down the road – by several local kids curious about what he was up to.
What he’s up to is what it seems he’s always up to. Lewis, of Ronan, has done what he can for several years now to remind folks of the incredible sacrifice men and women of the military make to serve their nation.
In the past, he’s often done so by standing still.
This year, Lewis – a Marine Corps vet himself – has ratcheted up his one-man campaign and put it in motion.
His 3,300-mile walk, begun just over a month ago in Everett, Wash., will take several months more to complete. He’s pushing the two-seat baby stroller, filled with 145 pounds of gear and supplies in addition to the flags, sleeping in his tent when he has to – which is about every other night so far – and hiking to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
He lost friends in Vietnam, Lewis says. Part of his motivation is to honor them, young men who were killed in Vietnam and missed out on the last four decades of life he has enjoyed.
Lewis had hoped to make it a few miles past Columbia Falls on Tuesday, to Hungry Horse, but a few people held him up.
And boy, was Lewis glad they did.
Two of them were Howard and Barbara Crawford of Columbia Falls. Howard, an Air Force veteran, and Barbara offered Lewis a bed to sleep in that night, and for a guy who has camped outside on asphalt next to snow plowed 6 feet high on Stevens Pass on this journey, a bed is a luxury you don’t pass up.
One of the other people who delayed Lewis was Rudy Matule.
It wasn’t until Tuesday that it occurred to Lewis he’d be hiking past the turn that takes people to the Montana Veterans Home in Columbia Falls.
Hershel Grigsby of Kalispell, another Marine vet – he survived the Tet Offensive while serving in Vietnam – was providing support during Lewis’ walk through the Flathead. Grigsby drove on ahead to alert the Veterans Home staff that Lewis would be hiking in.
Lewis would just like to visit with some of the residents, Grigsby told them, although Lewis thought maybe he should extend his stay.
“I’ve got all my stuff with me,” Lewis joked. “Maybe I should just check in.”
By the time Lewis and his buggy had made their way down the tree-lined road leading to the home, administrator Joren Underdahl knew one man he definitely wanted Lewis to meet. After Lewis had visited with several other veterans, Underdahl led him to the man.
Rudy Matule, from Butte, is 97 years old. He’s been a resident of the Montana Veterans Home for 11 years. The door to his room, and the walls inside, are covered in a century’s worth of photographs of family and friends.
In the middle of the door is a photograph of Matule from 1942 and World War II.
He’s in his Marine Corps uniform.
“I was 25,” Matule tells Lewis. “They called me the old man.”
Half of his division was killed in the Battle of Iwo Jima, Matule says.
“I used to hear from the others who made it back,” he adds. “But they’ve all passed away.”
Matule, who gets around with the aid of a walker, hints that he envies Lewis and his 3,300-mile journey.
“I used to walk five to six hours a day, but now I lose my balance,” he says. “I can’t walk anymore.”
The two Marines chat for several minutes. Their parting words are not unexpected.
“Semper Fi,” says Lewis, Latin for “always faithful” and the Marine Corps motto.
“Semper Fi,” Matule replies.
Lewis always walks facing traffic so people can see the sign on the front of the stroller.
“Walking for the fallen,” it reads.
For some time now Lewis has been “standing for the fallen.” He’s known for putting on his dress blues and standing at attention next to a sign that reads the same, often on Thanksgiving and Christmas or the days surrounding them, next to highways or in front of shopping malls in Western Montana.
“I just remember what it was like being away from home over the holidays when I was in the Marines,” he has said. As Americans scurry about on their own holiday errands and activities, it’s his way of reminding them they still have fellow citizens on the other side of the planet, fighting and dying in a war.
That’s what most of this is about, Lewis says.
The other part is raising money for organizations that help America’s newest veterans make the often difficult transition back to civilian life.
Many of the people who stop to talk to Lewis notice the “thermometers” painted on the sides of the cart showing how much money he’s raised on his walk – which, last Tuesday, stood at approximately $6,400, Lewis said.
Many give him a couple of bucks, or $5, or $10, or even $20. Lewis says he had no idea what goal might be realistic for his journey, so he picked a number – $50,000 – out of the air, and had the two “thermometers” painted.
He’ll have to average about $15 a mile to reach that total. Just in case he red-lines out before reaching the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, he had two more painted showing a goal of $100,000.
In Coulee City, Wash., Lewis says a woman who saw the flags, sign and thermometers turned her vehicle around and chased him down.
“She came across the road, crying, to give me a donation,” he says.
Lewis says he considered just thanking her. He doesn’t feel he does well in those types of situations, he says, and thought maybe he should just let it go – you never know if a personal tragedy might lie behind the tears – but decided to ask why she was crying.
“It turned out her eldest daughter had just joined up,” Lewis says. “I asked what branch, and she was still crying so much she couldn’t speak. She just pointed at my sweatshirt.“
It’s red, and says “USMC” on it.
“I told her, ‘You know, in Montana we have a town called Butte, and Butte girls are known across the state for their tenacity and toughness,’ ” Lewis says he told her. “‘In fact, there’s only one thing tougher than a woman from Butte, and that’s a Marine Corps mom.’ ”
Her daughter, he promised her, “will be in capable hands.”
Lewis is well aware that Americans’ attitudes toward troops have changed since Vietnam, when the treatment of returning veterans was often despicable in a nation that grew to largely oppose the war.
“We weren’t exactly a poster child,” he says.
While he’s happy for the attitude adjustment in general, Lewis says that, frankly, he thinks some people have taken it too far.
“Some people have taken to calling everyone who served in Iraq and Afghanistan heroes,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t respect their effort, but to call everyone a hero – it loses the meaning of what a real hero is. I’m proud of all of them, but at the same time, they were doing a job, and paid to do a job. It waters down the word for someone who has really sacrificed.”
One Marine who sacrificed both of his legs, and most of a hand, in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan in 2010, is one of the many people who have showed up along the journey up to walk a ways with Lewis.
The week before, as Lewis made his way into Kalispell, he was joined by Tomy Parker, also of Ronan.
While Lewis walked down Highway 2, Parker rode along in his wheelchair and took over the cart-pushing duties for a few miles.
They were joined by Parker’s mother, Lisa Corbett, his girlfriend, Amanda Hout, and Hout’s two young daughters, Olivia, 4, and Eva, 3.
In small-town Ronan, Lewis notes, Parker and his family aren’t the only ones whose lives have been forever altered by their service.
Just last year another young Marine from Ronan who had just returned from the war committed suicide.
“Sometimes they come home, and wonder what their purpose is,” Lewis says. “I think about it all the time out here. Cars zing by me at 60 to 70 miles an hour, filled with people who all have someplace to go. These guys come home, and the rest of us are wrapped up in our own lives, going 90 mph.
“None of us even knew he was home till we buried him.”
The gist for this journey may have started forming, Lewis says, in 2010, when a U.S. Army veteran Mike Ehredt passed through Montana.
Ehredt, a long-distance runner, ran 4,424 miles that year, from Astoria, Ore., to Rockport, Maine, stopping every mile to plant a flag in memory of the 4,424 Americans who were killed in Iraq. (Two years later, Ehredt ran another 2,140 miles, this time from the Canadian border in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, planting that many flags in memory of American troops killed in Afghanistan.)
“We met him outside Ravalli,” Lewis says, helping the local American Legion Post feed and house Ehredt for the night.
Afterward, Lewis and his wife, local journalist and photographer Linda Sappington, returned to Ehredt’s route. At mile marker 100 on Montana Highway 200, they picked up one of the flags – each carried a fallen service member’s name – and took it home.
It was in memory of Marine Sgt. Jon E. Bonnell Jr.
“I looked the family up,” Lewis says. Bonnell had died in an explosion in 2007. He was 22.
“They were from Fort Dodge, Iowa,” Lewis goes on. “I called, told them about what Mike was doing – he called it Project America Run – and told them I’d like to send their son’s flag to them, along with an article Linda did about it for the Valley Journal.”
Two months later, when Ehredt was running through Iowa, planting more flags, the Bonnells sought him out to show him the flag he’d put down more than 1,000 miles earlier, and the article Sappington had written about him.
Now, when Lewis reaches Iowa this summer, he’ll be making another detour – this one a hair longer than the one he took to get to the Montana Veterans Home.
Fort Dodge is about 170 miles off his selected route, but this time Lewis will catch a lift, meet the parents of Marine Sgt. Jon Bonnell Jr., and be able to thank them in person for their son’s service and supreme sacrifice.
If the rest of us would go a little out of our way to thank a veteran, or help one in need – well, Chuck Lewis thinks that’d be grand, too.