Justin LeHew was so bothered by the image of a tattered POW/MIA flag flying on a Fredericksburg building, the retired Marine decided to walk across the country to remind others why that black-and-white banner is so important.
LeHew recruited two other Marine veterans to join him on the effort they called “The Long Road.” During the 3,365-mile trek from Massachusetts to Oregon along U.S. 20, LeHew of Fredericksburg; Coleman “Rocky” Kinzer of Hawaii; and Raymond Shinohara, who joined the two in Illinois, gained a fresh perspective of their homeland.
“When you stepped away from the TV and internet, America really wasn’t what people were telling you it was, at least not on Route 20,” LeHew said. “You’re being told they hate America or they don’t like the military. Well, no they don’t. Every single town came out waving flags, and they’re really proud of their communities.”
Particularly in the heartland, the team entered towns where students lined sidewalks, giving fist bumps and singing hymns, and adults of all ages held photos of loved ones who died in military uniform. They met private citizens and veterans groups who offered food, lodging and hot showers as well as police who wanted to escort them to the next village.
Granted, the walkers didn’t get that kind of reception in busy cities, especially in the Northeast, but that might have been because there hadn’t been any buzz about the team when LeHew and Kinzer set off from Boston Harbor on June 6. That soon change as word spread, particularly through the group’s Facebook page.
The way the two chose the starting date sums up the spur-of-the-moment approach they took. As they talked about the effort, LeHew looked at a certificate in his office, given to his father who survived the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944.
Once the two knew when to start, they had to figure where. LeHew started looking at maps and discovered Route 20 crosses the country, allows pedestrians and is known as the Medal of Honor highway.
LeHew also happens to be the national commander of the Legion of Valor, an organization open to recipients of the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross and the Air Force Cross.
And, he’s chief operating officer of History Flight, a privately owned nonprofit based in Fredericksburg that researches, recovers and brings back to the United States remains of those killed in combat as far back as World War II. Since 2003, the group has recovered the remains of 130 servicemembers who were missing in action, and it also has handed over to the government another 250 sets of remains, which are in the process of being identified.
LeHew wanted to do something personal for those who’d died in combat, as well as those still missing, and their families. In his mind, crossing Route 20 on foot would bring attention to the POW/MIA flag, History Flight’s effort to raise money to recover remains, and the campaign, going on last year, to make Route 20 the Medal of Honor highway.
“Being like the town crier from town to town, we were walking and talking to people about why the black flag is on their post office and everything else,” LeHew said.
When word spread about their various missions, people responded. In the 12 states the team walked through, they met at least one family in each state with a loved one whose remains were still missing.
One of those encounters happened in “a little sliver of New York,” LeHew said, south of Lake Erie. Residents Fritz and Madolyn Kubera had seen a story about the walking Marines and set out to find them.
The couple — he’s 90 and she’s 85 — took down from the wall a framed photo of her brother, Sgt. Jack Mathers, along with the medals he earned. He was 18 when he was declared missing in action, on Nov. 28, 1950, in Korea.
Over the years, she’s saved clippings of every story about service members whose remains were found, and she went to mass to pray for them and their families. She also told her children about her brother, who couldn’t wait to be like his older brothers and go into the service.
Kubera said she was thrilled to share her brother’s story with LeHew and Kinzer.
“I never expected to go out before 8 o’clock in the morning and go looking for two Marines I didn’t know,” she said during a phone call this week. “But I was so interested (in their walk) because we’ve always been looking for Jack, we never stopped looking for him.”
The remains of more than 81,000 American servicemembers have never been found, including those who served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War, LeHew said.
The government of North Korea has not allowed access to American officials to look for remains and that’s taken away hope for so many, LeHew said.
However, in 2018, North Korean officials turned over 55 boxes of possible remains. About 200 servicemembers have been identified from the fragments and work continues to locate others. He hopes Madolyn Kubera’s brother is among them.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency compares the DNA of remains with samples in its database from family members of veterans. The challenge, according to the DPAA, is not having DNA samples from descendants of all those missing in action.
Along the walk, LeHew carried DNA kits with him and encouraged family members of the missing to send in their samples. He also provided information about the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, at dpaa.mil/, which includes information on how families can get an annual report about the missing service member.
It was one of many pieces of equipment LeHew hauled in a cart behind him. He bought a child carrier, normally pulled behind a bicycle, and adapted it into a chuck wagon of sorts that he could pull as he walked. It contained tents, food, clothes and shoes, since the walkers had to get a new pair every 300 or 400 miles.
Kinzer and Shinohara carried rucksacks filled with 40 to 50 pounds of gear. The backpacks represented “the heavy burden carried by generations of warriors who have served since 1775” and as a reminder “that we will never surrender and never leave a fallen comrade behind,” according to a press release the team sent out before the walk.
The journey took 6 1/2 months and subjected the walkers to the heat and humidity of summer in the Northeast as well as the below-zero temperatures of the Pacific Northwest. One of the highlights was walking through Yellowstone National Park as Route 20 runs through 88 miles of the park.
As late October neared, the park service closed four of five gates into Yellowstone and told the walkers they could enter through the open remaining gate, if they got there by a certain time, before the weather turned too treacherous. The men had averaged 20 to 25 miles a day, walking, but stepped up the pace to be at Yellowstone in time.
It was worth the effort as they were the only ones hiking through the park that time of year. They stuck to the park’s rule about saying 25 meters away from herds of buffalo, even when the bison and other wildlife tried to get closer to them.
LeHew said Yellowstone was the highlight of a trip that, three months after completion, still doesn’t seem real. He continues to receive mementos of the journey, from copies of newspaper stories to an intricate Quilt of Honor made by a woman named Cathy Miracle who lost a son in combat.
In a story from The Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts, Kinzer said he was excited to get a closeup look of so many parts of the country.
“You know, after you spend years defending your nation,” he said, “it’s nice to be able to see it.”
(c) 2023 The Free Lance-Star
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