SHARON, NY --
The middle-age leg muscles don’t have the same spring they did when enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps but so far they have brought the two some 250 miles along U.S. Route 20.
The two Gulf War veterans are heading to Newport, Ore., along the nation’s longest road, traveling by foot the entire way, toting backpacks with pup tents, water bottles and other provisions, as they raise public awareness about U.S. soldiers listed as Missing in Action.
While they aren’t keeping a rigid schedule, they expect to complete the trek over 3,365 miles by November.
Along the way they are meeting more and more people who are inviting them into their homes, shops and restaurants. On Tuesday night, for instance, they were treated to steak dinners by Debbi Moon, operator of the Tryon Inn in Cherry Valley. and on Wednesday, they will take a slight detour to check the box on another site on their mutual bucket lists: The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown.
Kinzer, 44, and LeHew , 52, are employed by a private, not for profit organization called History Flight. Its mission: Assisting the U.S. Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in locating the remains of U.S. military personnel, wherever they may be.
The organization has been instrumental in finding the remains of 160 service members since 2003. One of its most recent successes was zeroing in on the remains of Lt. Richard Horrigan, whose plane was shot down behind enemy lines just 19 days before Nazi Germany surrendered to the allied forces to end World War II in Europe.
Corrigan’s remains, after being positively identified, are to go to their final resting place next weekend in his hometown of Chester, W.V.
History Flight, through the funds that it raises, arranges for the transportation of the remains and ensures the soldiers receive a proper burial.
SENDING OUT TEAMS AGAIN
LeHew, chief operating officer for History Flight, said he and Kinzer sensed the time was ripe to do a cross-country walk to raise funds for the organization, as pandemic restrictions were being eased both domestically and internationally, allowing the search missions to continue after they faced limitations for more than two years.
“We can start sending our teams out again for the U.S. government,” he said. “Everybody is trying to get back to work and America is kind of waking up a little bit. and that means the international M.I.A. search and recovery operations are picking up now.”
Traveling through small towns in New England and now upstate New York, they have been taking in how much recognition is given to both veterans who lost their lives while deployed in military operations as well as for individuals now serving in the military.
“When you see a blue star in the window, that means a member of the family has been or is on active duty,” LeHew said. “A gold star means the family lost a son or a daughter in service to this country.” They have also noticed monuments in town squares, listing the names of those who served or made the ultimate sacrifice in wars.
‘A WORTHY CAUSE’
The two expressed a deep obligation to do all that can be done to ensure families can be reunited with the loved ones lost in wars even decades ago.
According to the Department of Defense, more than 81,600 Americans remain missing from WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Gulf Wars, among other conflicts.
“Prior to the 1980s, it was not an all-volunteer force,” Kinzer noted. “These folks were told by their country to join the military and fight its battles. They willingly went and did this. and part of the deal was: We’re never going to leave you behind. But we as a country haven’t really fulfilled that to the extent that we should. and that’s why this is a worthy cause.”
He added: “These are Americans, and they deserve to be buried on American soil and shouldn’t just be left where they are.”
THE LONG ROAD
LeHew and Kinzer have dubbed their journey “The Long Road.” A public Facebook group dedicated to their efforts was launched three weeks ago and by Tuesday night had more than 3,400 members.
One of them is Moon, who after dining with the pair said she is impressed by their drive to reunite the remains of MIA soldiers with their families.
Coming from a military family and knowing the feeling of missing a loved one away on service, I can appreciate their commitment,” Moon said.
They began the walk at the birth of the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood June 6. That coincided with the 78th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy by U.S. and allied forces. LeHew’s father was one of the soldiers to land on Omaha Beach.
They have been greeted by well-wishers at diners and at convenience stores such as the Stewart’s Shop store, where they took a break for bottles of Coca Cola Tuesday afternoon.
The MIA Accounting Agency has welcomed the assistance offered by groups such as History Flight.
“They need all the help they can get because they couldn’t make a dent in this if they had the next 400 years” due to the large number of missing service personnel, LeHew said.
Rain or shine, the two plan to resume their westward trek after departing Cooperstown