RONAN – About 10 days ago, Chuck Lewis of Ronan went on a mile-long walk.
When he was done, he went on another one.
Over the next half a year, the 62-year-old Lewis will repeat this process approximately 3,300 times, until he has walked across America.
Some people show their support for American troops by attaching a magnetized ribbon to their vehicle.
Chuck Lewis goes a few steps beyond that.
A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps himself, Lewis has been spied spending Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and the days surrounding them in his dress blues, standing at attention for hours in cold weather at spots ranging from Missoula’s Southgate Mall to the junctions of highways 93 and 35 near Polson, next to a sign that reads “Standing here today for those who are away.”
“I just remember what it was like being away from home over the holidays when I was in the Marines,” Lewis says.
So, as people scurry about with their own holiday activities, he reminds them in the only way he knows how that thousands of servicemen and women are separated from their families by duty, and hundreds of thousands of American veterans never lived to see another holiday.
He feels for those who came home wounded, and is heartbroken at those in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder who take their own lives.
“Not being a social worker or physical therapist, I don’t have the skill mix to help these people,” Lewis says. “But I can raise money for programs that can help them.”
And so 10 days ago, in Everett, Wash., “Standing for the Fallen” became “Walking for the Fallen.” Chuck Lewis took the first of millions of steps that will take him from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Sometime next fall, the final step will take the Ronan man up to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday when a reporter rang his cellphone, Lewis was eight miles east of Coulee City, Wash., and 198 miles into his long journey.
“Let me push my cart off the highway,” he said. “There are railroad tracks right over here I can sit down on. This’ll be good … unless a train comes along.”
He’s crossing the first half of the country on U.S. Highway 2, a route that should land him back home in Montana toward the end of April for the long leg across the Hi-Line.
“It’s kind of funny, I could get to Kalispell in less than a month, but to get from point A to point B in Montana could take five to six weeks,” Lewis says. “It’s a big state.”
Lewis is pushing a Chariot CX2, a two-seat child’s stroller donated by Sportsman & Ski Haus in Kalispell. It’s loaded with his sleeping bag, tent, single-burner stove, freeze-dried meals, ramen, Cup Noodles and a solar panel for charging his cellphone.
It’s decorated with several flags, including, naturally, the American flag and the flags of all the U.S. service branches.
On the front is a sign advertising the well-designed website, walkingforthefallen.com, where people can follow his journey. On the sides of the stroller are two “thermometers” that show how much money he’s raised for organizations that help American veterans.
When he was standing for the fallen, Lewis says people would stop to talk with him, and some would hand him money.
“When it got up to $1,000, I went, ‘Oh, I’d better figure out what I’m going to do with it,” Lewis says. “I looked at different organizations that support wounded vets. Like a lot of charities, some have high administrative fees. I looked for ones with low administrative fees. I figured if people I didn’t even know were giving me their hard-earned income to help vets, I wanted to give them the most bang for their buck.”
Now, on this little hike across a nation, Lewis hopes to raise $50,000.
“That’s the goal,” he says. “Actually, my optimistic self made a second set of thermometers that go to $100,000, if we go past $50,000.”
Still in the first of 14 states he will cross in the coming months, Lewis says he has already collected $3,500 from strangers. He purchases money orders with the donations once he arrives in towns along his route and mails them to a Ronan bank so that he’s not carrying loads of cash with him.
“And, in Montana and Marine tradition, I am armed,” he notes.
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A California native, Lewis spent much of his life in Ridgecrest, a desert town adjacent to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. He grew up there, and went to work there for the Department of Defense after and during his own service, which included four years in the Marines and eight years in the Navy Reserves.
He laughs while telling what led him to the Marines during the Vietnam War era.
“In 1969, I graduated high school, bummed around and even went to jail for a while,” Lewis says. “When I got out of jail, they dropped me on the courthouse steps in Bakersfield. It was across from the induction center, and 150 miles from home.”
He headed across the street, where all the military branches had representatives. The Marine office was the first one he stopped in.
A two-year enlistment, he was told, would train him for combat skills that weren’t in high demand in civilian life.
A four-year commitment, however, and he could be trained in something such as aviation.
“I had visions of flying,” Lewis says, “so I said, ‘OK.’ Little did I know I’d spend four years on air bases knowing how to shoot machine guns and throw hand grenades.”
But it did lead him to avionics, which led him to earn an electronics technology degree after the Marines, which led to his 27-year career at China Lake.
Lewis and his wife, Linda Sappington, came to Montana in 2001, and moved to Ronan in 2005.
It’s another Marine he served with in the early 1970s, Robert “Bo” Pennock, who will take Lewis a little out of his way on his hike across the country.
Pennock, who made the Marine Corps a career and retired to North Carolina, was recently diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live.
Lewis will leave Highway 2 in Duluth, Minn., and cut down to Chicago. Once there, however, he’ll add hundreds of miles to his journey, cutting down through Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee and crossing North Carolina to visit Pennock.
Only after Lewis has reached Jacksonville, N.C., will he turn north, walk across the rest of North Carolina and all of Virginia, and enter the District of Columbia over the Arlington Memorial Bridge.
Lewis ran marathons and competed in triathlons, but – as it explains at the website – “as he got older and lost most of his speed, the only way to compete became to outlast the other competitors.”
Eventually, he ran ultramarathons of up to 100 miles, but even that didn’t prepare him for walking 3,300 miles.
“I’ve done a lot of training for runs, but I don’t understand how you train for this,” Lewis says.
He has been able to sleep inside on two nights so far – former Ronan residents Bob and Jennifer Eck, who now live in Wenatchee, took him in, and a firefighter he met along the way invited him to stay at his home in Orondo, Wash.
Lewis’ walk began by going from sea level to more than 4,100 feet over Stevens Pass, and it was even tougher descending the other side, he says.
“I had shin splints by the time it finally flattened out,” Lewis says. In Coulee City, a town of less than 600 people, he mentioned it to someone in the local café, who told someone else, who mentioned it to someone, who – well, you get the drift.
Eventually, someone posted the news about this veteran walking across the nation in support of other veterans on their Facebook page, and how he had shin splints. A woman saw it, and next thing you know she had her husband – the high school trainer – there, taping Lewis up Tuesday morning before he headed off the next 20 or so miles he’s been covering.
“So I feel a lot better,” Lewis says. “And the mayor came down to see me, he’s got one son in the Corps and one in the Army, and another guy read about me and drove 50 miles one way to find me and give me a donation. I’m meeting a lot of good people.”
The adventure alone might be reason enough to tackle such a walk, but for Lewis, it’s much more than that.
“I lost a couple of friends in Vietnam,” he says. “I look at what I’ve gotten to do over the last 40 years that they didn’t get a chance to do.”
And so he takes another step, for them, and for all who have served, on his series of 3,300 one-mile walks to Washington, D.C.