‘The Long Road:’ 2 Marines marching across America along Route 20 to raise awareness of MIAs

CHARLTON — Just five days into their trip, Justin “JD” LeHew and Coleman “Rocky” Kinzer wanted to talk to the guy who told them Massachusetts was mostly flat.

The hills west of Boston were a bit too much and came too soon, but it’s good preparation for what’s to come, LeHew said.

“Those were tough first days, but today is wonderful,” he said on Friday.

LeHew and Kinzer, retired Marine Corps sergeant majors with 56 years of combined active duty, expect to spend the next six months walking — yes, walking — across the country.

They plan to walk along Route 20 from Boston to Newport, Oregon, a distance of 3,365 miles across 12 states. Route 20 is the longest single highway in the U.S. highway system, and state legislatures across the country, including the Bay State, are taking steps to designate it the Medal of Honor Highway.

LeHew and Kinzer drive through western Massachusetts today. If they average 20 miles a day, they should reach their destination by the end of November.

The first four days were tough, according to LeHew. Rough on the legs. And, rough in other ways, too.

“We had a ‘masshole’ moment in Auburn,” he explained.

A narrowing of the road, a tight curve and unprepared traffic for two guys walking on the shoulder led to a dicey moment or two, LeHew said. Horns honked. The brakes squealed. A hand gesture or two may have been displayed.

Welcome to Massachusetts.

Kinzer said, with perfect deadpan, “I apologize to anyone we may have disturbed on the road.”

The purpose of the walk, dubbed “The Long Road,” is to raise money for History Flight, a nonprofit organization dedicated to identifying the remains of U.S. service members killed overseas and then organizing to transportation to their home for a proper burial.

LeHew, 52, of Fredericksburg, Va., is the chief operating officer of History Flight. Kinzer, 44, of Kailua, Hawaii, is deputy director of operations and team leader for Life Flight missions.

Since 2003, History Flight has helped recover, identify and return the remains of more than 160 military personnel killed in wars in Europe and the Pacific. He also helped recover an additional 350 sets of remains awaiting identification by the Federal Prisoner of War/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA)

While taking a break on the side of the road in Charlton, LeHew checked his email to find that the accounting agency had confirmed the identity of a 27-year-old Marine gunnery sergeant from Montana killed in combat on November 23, 1943 on the South Pacific island. Betio in Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands. The remains were found by History Flight in 2009.

“Most people have no idea that there are 81,000 US military personnel missing since World War II,” he said.

“The Long Road” hopes to bring attention to the work of History Flight, but also to the sacrifice of thousands of service members and their families.

Each community has a war memorial with the names of the dead. Each name represents a real person lost in war, the two noted.

“You have a town of 300 people and there are five names on the memorial. It’s a huge sacrifice,” Kinzer said.

Their journey began from the USS Constitution in Charlestown on June 6, the 78th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France on D-Day in World War II.

Time and place were important.

The Constitution is the Navy’s oldest commissioned ship, and the Marines are part of the Navy.

LeHew’s father landed at Omaha Beach with the Army’s 29th Infantry on June 6, 1944.

“We were going to leave on Memorial Day, but I didn’t want to take anything away from that,” LeHew said. Memorial Day should be about remembering people’s service and sacrifice, he said, not about two guys embarking on an unlikely journey across the country.

Kinzer carries a heavy bag on his back. LeHew, who earned the Navy Cross for his heroism in Iraq in 2003, is hitched to a modified bicycle trailer loaded with hundreds of pounds of gear which he tows behind him.

“This is it. This is what we wear,” LeHew said.

Although it took some getting used to carrying the rig, it’s actually easier to go up hills than down, he said. During declines, gravity takes over and it feels like the rig wants to knock it over, LeHew explained.

Kinzer, 44, said the first four days were tough, mostly because despite all the preparation he put into it, there’s really no way to prepare for a 3,365-mile hike.

“The first week is just to remind your body how to walk under load,” he said. “I was in the infantry. We do a lot of things under load. My body is starting to remember what that means.

Still, Kinzer said he looks forward to the plains of Nebraska and Iowa before having to tackle the Rocky Mountains, where parts of their route rise 9,000 feet above sea level. sea.

Being away from his family is hard, but he’s been there before. His wife and daughter endured long periods without him while he was on active duty with the Marines.

Looking forward to November, Kinzer said, “I imagine when we reach Newport I’ll go see the Pacific (ocean) and then find a ride to the airport to get home.”

The idea for “The Long Road” was born a few years ago, according to LeHew. They were planning to do it in 2020 but COVID-19 delayed things.

A few months ago, the timing seemed right with an overlapping “window of opportunity” between work and weather, so they went for it.

“We might as well do it while we’re young,” LeHew said.

Prior to History Flight, LeHew and Kinzer served together in the 3rd Marine Regiment.

LeHew said that when a Marine offers something crazy to another Marine, the correct response is to accept. He recalled how Kinzer, without hesitation, said, “Let’s do this.

They keep a daily account of their trip on a Facebook page, called The Long Road.

Although the page was created almost as an afterthought, it turns out to be very useful. Their Facebook followers who live along Route 20 are reaching out, offering food, shelter and any other help they can provide.

LeHew follows through and seeks to tap into that base of support throughout the journey. His wife, back home in Virginia, works as an advanced scout. Every day, she calls the police departments of the communities on the route to inform them of their arrival.

The police were quite receptive and officers came to ask if they were okay and recommend where they could sleep for the night, according to the couple.

“People have already been more than hospitable,” Kinzer said.

When The Republican caught up with LeHew and Kinzer on Friday, they were resting on the tailgate of Nick Treadwell’s van by the side of the road in Charlton.

Treadwell, of Spencer, a former Navy tank mechanic, followed their exploits on Facebook. When he saw that they were approaching his corner of the country, he loaded up bottles of Gatorade and set out to find them.

When he spotted them, he stopped and invited them to rest a bit. Seven miles in their daily walk with another 11 to go before bed at the Village Green family campground in Brimfield, they agreed.

Treadwell said it was the least he could do.

“I follow a bunch of Marine groups on Facebook. I saw they were in Auburn, so I started doing laps (on Route 20 between Auburn and Sturbridge),” he said.

There hasn’t been much media coverage yet, according to LeHew, but they’ve garnered a devoted following on Facebook. People who live near Route 20 in several states have already reached out to offer help, to recommend where they could stay or grab a meal, or just to encourage them.

He said he keeps track of everyone who makes an offer because they might need to accept people when the time comes.

The generosity and hospitality shown by the people they’ve met so far makes up for the tired muscles, according to LeHew. Meeting people face to face at ground level is reassuring, he said.

“When you go out here and meet people, you realize America is still a great place,” LeHew said.

Later that day, when they arrived at Brimfield Campground and explained their trip, they received a $100 donation from the owner, who connected them with a campsite and firewood for the night. “Great Americans everywhere. (Semper Fi),” read their Facebook post.

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