In “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” John Steinbeck said, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
Three retired Marines determined to see North America and honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice set out on a journey in mid-2022. Like Steinbeck, they wanted to see North America up close. Theirs, too, became a journey of discovery.
“We’ve all driven across the states and flown over them, but when you are walking it, you really see the different change in the dynamic more than when you are driving,” Justin “J.D.” Lehew says.
He set out June 6, 2022, with Coleman “Rocky” Kinzer.
Both men are highly decorated Marine combat veterans. They began at the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor, with the goal of walking historic U.S. Highway 20 to its end: 3,365 miles away in Newport, Oregon.
J.D. and Rocky are members of History Flight, a nonprofit dedicated to researching, recovering and repatriating U.S. service members. Since 2003, the organization has helped recover, identify and return the remains of more than 160 service members killed in wars in Europe and the Pacific.
In August 2022, fellow decorated combat Marine Ray “Shino” Shinohara, joined the men in Illinois.
In a Facebook post, Shino wrote, “I’ve realized serving this great country for 11 years; I finally get to see the freedom we fought for and how it is very much THRIVING.”
Harsh Challenges of The Long Road
Their epic walk, known as “The Long Road,” involved the scorching sun, stifling humidity, raging wind, stinging rain, blowing snow and cutting ice. There was also sickness, blisters and close calls with vehicles. Each man carried a 40-pound rucksack.
Video posts show them navigating ice-covered roads as vehicles come dangerously close. J.D. says they felt more concerned about getting “car-bit than dog-bit.”
“Roads aren’t made for people to walk on,” he says. “This isn’t the Appalachian Trail or anything like that. This was some grueling stuff.”
Early in their walk, J.D. became ill.
“I walked for a week with about 105-degree temperature,” he says. “Finally, Rocky just looked at me and said, ‘You are going to the hospital.’ So, I went to the hospital in Cooperstown, New York, with a 105-degree temperature. I was there seven days, and finally the doctor got that under control.”
Shino endured painful blisters the first 100 miles and suffered sickness several times, but he remembers the mental part being the most challenging.
Rocky ran into some physical obstacles.
“Rocky has got a lot of bone-on-bone with his knees and his hips,” J.D. says. “That took kind of a toll on him. You are not going to go 3,365 miles and get out of it scot-free.”
Interest in the Mission Grew
With increasing social media posts, and television and newspaper interviews, support grew, and donations poured in to History Flight. The total has reached $250,000, and donations are still coming.
Supporters paid for meals or motel stays, and towns launched welcome parties with people lining the streets. Some gave names of the missing, telling the men, “This may be the missing connection that finds my loved one.”
Halfway through their journey, J.D. posted to Facebook: “What started as a couple of quiet professionals and friends walking across the nation in obscurity in the hopes of educating people along the way on the plight of our missing combat heroes and their families, has truly gained the momentum of the beginnings of a national movement.”
Shino spoke of past mental health challenges.
“It took me a long time to figure out what I was going through,” he says. “I didn’t want to accept it, especially coming out of the military. It was only when I started to ask for help I started to receive help either through the VA or through other nonprofits, which kind of inspired and led me to become a social worker who actually helps veterans now that suffer with PTSD. ”
Shino took off a year from his job to clear his head. He walked with an Elf on the Shelf, a Christmas-themed doll given to him by fellow Marine Danny Vasselian, who was killed in combat nine years earlier. At the journey’s end, Shino flew from Oregon to Boston and placed the elf on his friend’s tombstone before returning home to Guam.
Disaster was avoided months earlier when Shino left the elf in an Iowa motel room, where the three men were put up for the night by the mayor of Cedar Rapids.
“We get on the road early the next day,” J.D. says. “We are about 5 miles out of town, and Shino realizes the elf’s gone. We have no transportation. I knew how much this thing meant.”
They called the motel.
“As we are walking, the lady calls me back and said, ‘We searched the room; it’s not there.’ I am thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this kid is going to get crushed.’”
They considered stopping to let Shino search. J.D. called the mayor, who said to keep moving and he would take care of it.
“Whatever he ended up doing, 30 minutes later, he texted me and said, ‘I got the elf, and I’ll drive it out to you guys,’” J.D. says. “And he did. We were like 8 miles down the road. I went up to Shino and I said, ‘I made a few calls, the mayor’s got the elf and he’s on his way out right now.’ You could just see the weight lifted. It was like somebody just won the lottery.”
The End of the Journey
After trekking across the wintry landscapes of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon, Team Long Road finally crossed the snow-covered Cascades and arrived December 17 in Newport to a heroes’ welcome.
Rocky and Shino were able to catch flights out of Portland. J.D. was stranded because of weather-affected flights, unable to make it home for Christmas.
Recalling the Adventure
“A lot of it is really so epic,” J.D. says from his home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “When you speak to people it really hits you—because they are so inspired by it, they are so in awe of the epic scope of it—that you really have to sit there at times and just say,
‘Oh my God, we just walked across America.’”