Somewhere in the no-man’s land between Yorkville and Morris, rain began to fall from a gray sky. Chuck Lewis rested his cart under a tree and put on his plastic poncho.
Then he kept walking down Illinois 47, toward Morris.
To get here — 1,600 miles from his home in Ronan, Mont. — he has walked since Easter. Through cornfields and small towns. Through all sorts of weather. Through the worn out soles of his running shoes.
A retired Marine who served in Vietnam, Lewis is walking to Washington, D.C., to raise money and awareness for veterans and what he calls the “cost of freedom,” a price paid only be a small sliver of our society.
He hasn’t been home in 118 days. He won’t see his wife again for another two months. He doesn’t know where he’ll sleep each night — he prefers churches, but often has to settle for camping in a park or a farm field.
There are times he wonders what he’s doing out here. Sometimes he wishes he was spending his summer with his family. Sometimes he wishes he was at home.
But he walks on — town after town, state after state. He took an oath of duty to his country more than 40 years ago, an “oath that never expires.”
“If I was a better speaker, maybe I could talk at universities or schools,” Lewis said. “The reality is, I’m not. I’ve always led by example.
“It’s just my way of leading wears out sneakers.”
‘...WHAT I’M SUPPOSED TO DO’
The road that led Chuck Lewis halfway across the country began in Montana, where a year ago he was spurred into action when people in his community began returning home from service with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Last year, a Marine from Montana committed suicide less than a month after returning home from combat.
Lewis credits that death with making him aware of the “suicide issue” plaguing members of the armed forces, referring to the fact that more service members died by suicide in 2012 than in combat in Afghanistan.
And that was just among active members — what, Lewis wondered, about people who had come back from the war?
“How many more of these men and women have taken their lives?” he asked.
He’d already been active in veterans’ causes — the previous Christmas, he put on his uniform and stood on a street corner in his town as a tribute to those who’d be spending their holiday season abroad.
But the Marine’s suicide seemed to push him further. He began giving presentations at schools, standing at other events, raising money.
“I just felt like, ‘Maybe this is what I’m supposed to do.’”
Soon, he had his biggest idea yet: to walk across the country to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I made my decision in a matter of hours,” Lewis said. “I talked it over with my wife, and we decided to do it and started planning.”
Chuck Lewis began in Everett, Wash.
He crossed Washington state into Idaho. Then it was Montana, then North Dakota, then Minnesota, then Wisconsin.
In Iowa, his wife met him and the two camped with friends in Dubuque.
That was the last time that he’s seen his wife.
“It’s hard [being away from family],” Lewis said. “But they recognize the passion I have for this country. They understand.”
Now, he’s walking through Illinois.
He spent Thursday night in Yorkville, and on Friday came to Morris.
On Friday afternoon, while Lewis was still on his way into town, Ken Buck — superintendent of the Grundy County Veterans’ Assistance Commission — applauded Lewis’ efforts and said he planned on meeting with Lewis.
“I applaud it,” Buck said. “Any veteran who picks a cause he believes in and follows it, I think that’s great.”
There are others Lewis meets along the way who also applaud his effort. But sometimes, he’s met with indifference.
“Sometimes I wonder, ‘How many even see me out here?’” Lewis said. “And when they do notice me, what do they see? A veteran or a homeless person?”
In Wisconsin, a police officer stopped him, saying a resident had complained of a homeless man pushing a shopping cart down the highway.
But it was Lewis, pushing his 150-pound pack of luggage that includes a tent, nonperishable food, and other basic necessities.
“Some people do think I’m homeless,” Lewis said. “They don’t look to see what I’m trying to do.”
EMBRACE OR INDIFFERENCE
Chuck Lewis says there is a disconnect between civilians and the military.
When he came back from Vietnam, he said, “We weren’t America’s poster children.”
Now, though, he believes the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction — now, he said, society treats all soldiers as “heroes.”
“Not all of us agree,” Lewis said. “There are heroes, but they are few and far between.”
“I’m proud of those who serve,” Lewis explained. “I admire them.”
But he feels that society is bestowing the term “hero” on all who serve to resolve its guilt at its treatment of past generations of veterans, something he feels goes hand in hand with the philosophy that “every child is a winner.”
Whether you agree with his assertion or not, or his belief that America is a “Christian nation” getting further from its roots, there does seem to be a dichotomy between those who serve and those who don’t.
“People either embrace it or they’re indifferent,” Lewis said. “That’s true of a lot of things today. Our lives are so fast-paced, we sometimes don’t take the time to notice things.”
He describes a reality in which service members — most trained on high-tech machines for extraordinarily difficult jobs — return home to underemployment; who can only trust the people they served with and know their experience; and a country “bent on division.”
And he walks, hoping to have small part in doing what he thinks is best for society.
“I guess I’m just an odd bird in a way,” Lewis said. “Not everybody would walk across the country for this.”
Ten miles north of Morris, and almost 800 from the end of his trip, Lewis pressed on.
He walked into a rain that grew harder, a wind that blew stronger, down the gravelly shoulder of the road over which speeding trucks cast thin veils of mist.
A car with Wisconsin license plates honked, turned on its signal and pulled to a stop behind Lewis.
The driver handed Lewis a McDonald’s bag and a coffee, they talked for a few minutes and parted ways.
A field of human-height corn stalks shivered in the wind. Rain continued to spill from the sky, which was blushed blue far into the distance. One foot in front of the other, he walked toward it.