VALE – They’ve worn out a dozen pair of shoes.
They’ve ambled through the heartland of America.
Past the hulks of shuttered factories in the Rust Belt then through the corn and wheat fields of the Midwest and into the Rocky Mountains.
Last week, Justin “JD” LeHew, Coleman “Rocky” Kinzer and Ray “Shino” Shinohara, retired U.S. Marine Corps combat veterans, walked into Vale on their way to Newport and the final leg of their epic jaunt to raise awareness about America’s missing and killed in action. Another aim of their long walk is to raise money for History Flight, a nonprofit organization that seeks to identify the remains of U.S. military personnel at old battlefields.
LeHew and Kinzer began their journey in June on board the USS Constitution Boston Harbor.
The duo selected to start on the ship to honor the naval tradition of the Marine Corps.
Their goal was to walk the entire length of U.S. Highway 20, crossing through 12 states. Shinohara joined LeHew and Kinzer outside of Chicago during the summer.
Kinzer and LeHew marched into Vale Nov. 21 – with Shinohara following in the group’s Winnebago RV – escorted by the patrol cars from the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office and vehicles from the Vale Fire and Rescue Department. The three veterans then chatted briefly with a small crowd at Vale City Hall before they headed over to American Legion Post 96 on Water Street for a brief reception.
Over the summer, the group walked during the day, usually trekking about 20 miles, hauling rucksacks to represent the burden carried “by generations of warriors who have served in our nation’s ranks since 1775.”
At night they pitched tents. In Nebraska, LeHew bought a used Winnebago RV. From there, two members of the trio walked while a third member drove. At night they’d search for an RV campground or a parking lot to camp in.
“We wake up about 6:30 a.m., warm the Winnebago up, have some breakfast and start crushing miles,” said Shinohara.
Besides being combat veterans, all three men are also highly decorated. LeHew, for example, was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism in Iraq.
They also served in numerous combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Me and Rocky were in Afghanistan together,” said Shinohara, who grew up in Guam.
LeHew and Kinzer collectively served 56 years in the Marine Corps. Shinohara was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps after 11 years.
Lehew and Kinzer have also spent the past few years roaming the globe in search of America’s missing and killed in action, often investing their own money in the quest to recover the remains of the nation’s fallen.
Shinohara said while he served his nation, he did so without a true appreciation of its people that live in the heartland.
“It’s really been awesome. We never got to experience America and this is definitely a great experience to learn about America from the ground,” said Shinohara.
For Kinzer and LeHew, the trek across country found a nation in sharp contrast to what often spills out from TV screens and social media.
“America is not as screwed up as people perceive. What you see is people bringing you water or offering you to stay at their home,” said LeHew.
LeHew, of Fredericksburg, Va., said once as they ate at a restaurant, a man overheard the trio chatting about their trip.
“He said, ‘My farm is two miles out of town. You can crash in my field,’” said LeHew.
Kinzer, who lives in Kailua, Hawaii, said he was struck by the resiliency of the people he encountered and their work ethic.
Kinzer said he remembered one night in the Midwest the group parked in a parking lot. It was harvest time and as they sat and reflected on the day on the road, a big tractor pulled into the parking lot as the sun set.
“Another pickup moved in toward the tractor and out of the tractor comes four kids. They were with dad and mom was picking them up. They were people carving out their life. I think they get ignored a lot,” said Kinzer.
Their journey has not been without its challenges. LeHew was bitten by a tick early on and came down with a high fever and was forced to seek medical help.
“It’s been 3,000 miles of pain,” said Kinzer.
Yet he said the trip has been worth it as he and his friends have “seen the story of America.”
For LeHew, the trip showed that once “you get away from your TV and unplug and walk out in your neighborhood” people are pretty much alike.
“It isn’t what you think. It’s hard working Americans who are not appreciated. The person who makes your lunch or the farmer. They should be appreciated because they are hardworking Americans,” said LeHew.
Tom Vialpando, Vale mayor, said the effort by the three men is a noble one.
“They’ve already done their service to their country and they are continuing to do more like most veterans do,” said Vialpando.
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