Walking for the Fallen

Memoir/Travel, Nonfiction

I first heard about the veteran walking across America when I was still a full state behind him. “We saw him last week,” a family told me. “He’s carrying a flag all the way across the country.” And from another driver: “He’s walking from Washington to Washington! And pushing this flag cart, too.”

As I gained on him, I learned more. “He’s following highway 2—just like you!” And finally, the motive: “It’s for soldiers who died in battle.”
A few miles outside of Floodwood, Minnesota, I found him. I interrupted my driver mid-story. He wasn’t offended. “Don’t apologize–I’d walk with him, too, if I could. You’ll hear some good stuff.”

So we stopped and everyone got out to meet the walker. But the driver had a destination and a deadline, and by the time I had pulled my pack from the trunk, he had returned to his car.

“Mind if I walk with you a while?” I asked the veteran.

“Not at all.”

Sgt. Chuck Mills, outside Crookston. Population 528.
Sgt. Chuck Mills, outside Crookston. Population 528.

The man was Sgt. Chuck Lewis. Sixty-two and decked out in running gear, he pushed a beefed-up, three-wheeled baby carriage. It held his supplies, two full-sized flags (American and Christian), and a row of smaller flags for the Marine Corps, prisoners of war, and other groups.

He walked quickly and—on most issues, anyway—knew where he stood.
“We talk about the 99 percent and the 1 percent in this country,” he said, “but the real 1 percent are the men and women in uniform. They’re the only ones who really sacrifice for their country.”

I asked about doctors and teachers. He answered with a new subject.
“We’ve got more suicides than casualties coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. People think Vietnam was bad, but they don’t look at the wars now. We’ve got a problem, and our country has to do something about it.” Chuck talked about one soldier who came back from Iraq and retreated into his house. No one realized he had returned until they found his body, days later.

Amid ideas and opinions, I gleaned Chuck’s backstory: a marine during Vietnam, though never sent abroad. Then he worked for the Navy with weapons research and development. After retiring in 2001, he volunteered with veterans organizations and a project he called “Standing for the Fallen.” During the holiday seasons, he stood beside the street in uniform and with his flags, reminding people of the servicemen and servicewomen who can no longer share the holidays with their own families.

But, tired of petty squabbles among veterans organizations and sick of undervalued military deaths, Chuck wanted to do more. On March 31, he changed “Standing for the Fallen” to “Walking for the Fallen” and began a 3,300-mile journey from Everett, Washington to the Vietnam Memorial.

“I almost left on April first,” he said, “but someone asked if it was an April Fool’s joke. So instead I started on March 31.” Since then, a typical day is twenty miles of walking, a lunchtime phone call to his wife, and a lot of waving.

Posing with Sgt. Chuck Lewis'  flags outside Floodwood
Posing with Sgt. Chuck Lewis’ flags outside Floodwood

We neared the town of Floodwood, the halfway point for Chuck’s trip, and he invited me to a dinner that a local group of veterans and their wives had planned for him. I tagged along and did a poor job of blending in.

“What’s your cause?” several sixty-somes asked me.

“I’m just trying to learn.”

“You aren’t walking for a charity?”

“No, getting some experiences. And I’m hitchhiking–I don’t have to walk much.”

“You can’t hitchhike in this day and age,” one woman declared. “There’s too many crazies out there.”

“I’ve made it this far, and I’ve only met good people.”

“Well, it’s not safe anymore.”

Then dinner arrived, and Chuck shared stories with the group, plus some general observations. “When people stop to ask what I’m doing,” he explained, “I usually ask if they identify as conservative or liberal–no parties, just conservative or liberal. Most say they’re conservative, and some say they don’t like either term. But only five self-identified as liberal. That makes you think.”

I listened to discussions about Vietnam, current politics, and the military today, and the veterans’ shared values acted as an incubator. Premature ideas hatched and stumbled about: opinions that would not have survived cold counter-arguments, denouncements that could breathe only in a closed and homogenous room. Some seemed the result of a one-up-manship game of chicken, speakers making bolder and bigger claims as if to out-patriotize or out-Christian the others.

Some veterans lamented the end of the draft. All agreed that the military deserved more respect. And boot camp, evidently, has gone soft. “You used to go in there and get straightened out. You knew how to respect authority.” A few blamed violent video games for school shootings, and one veteran blamed divorce. “Look at all the school shooters,” he said. “All males. All missing a father figure.”

They brought up the problems in our country: no prayer in schools. Abortions and too much birth control. Gays in the military. Gays in general.

“It’s just going downhill,” one woman lamented. “But we know it has to happen. Look at history, and we know things have just kept on getting worse.”

But, as has often happened on this trip, I could not write off their ideas. Amid a dissimilar generation’s hyper-conservativeness, I found some ideas I respected, and some I even admired.

My hosts for the night and Sgt. Chuck Mills.
My hosts for the night and Sgt. Chuck Mills.

As dinner wound down, the couple hosting Chuck for the night extended the invitation to me. Eager for more time with Chuck–plus a shower and a tick-free night–I accepted. I heard more about his thoughts and his trip, but one topic stood out to me.

“In Vietnam–and in these wars now–the enemy isn’t in uniform,” he said. “They hide behind women and children. They even use women and children. You can’t tell who’s against you and who’s neutral. The only ones you can depend on are your brothers and sisters in uniform. Those are the only people you can trust.”

I have the luxury of living in a relatively safe culture. To a large degree, I can find friends in strangers, and I can afford to trust recklessly. I find the unknown inviting and, at the very least, interesting.

But when I imagine a context in which the foreign is legitimately dangerous, in which “stranger” is synonymous with “enemy,” I understand withdrawal. Home is a known good, and if our attempts to explore end in violence or chaos, it makes sense to shun the unknown.

I will not assume causation. I will not try to psycho-analyze a roomful of veterans, nor attribute an entire worldview to how one views the unfamiliar. But for me, it works like one of C.S. Lewis’ models. “Such is my own way of looking,” Lewis writes in Mere Christianity. “But remember this is only one more picture. Do not mistake it for the thing itself: and if it does not help you, drop it.”

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