A mission to keep the stories of U.S. servicemembers unaccounted for alive
Justin LeHew speaks with American Legion Department Second Vice Commander Dan Burks at American Legion Post 96 in Vale, Ore. Photo by Kyle Green 

A mission to keep the stories of U.S. servicemembers unaccounted for alive

After Legionnaire Justin LeHew retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2018 following a 31-year highly decorated career, he connected with History Flight founder Mark Noah. LeHew was introduced to Noah in 2015 when paperwork came across LeHew’s desk to name Noah an honorary Marine for his founding of History Flight – a nonprofit dedicated to researching, recovering and repatriating U.S. servicemembers.

“At that time, (Noah) had located well over 100 missing U.S. Marines,” said LeHew, who in 2015 oversaw training and education for the entire U.S. Marine Corps. “I said, ‘My God, how can you say no to a person who has no military connection, who is using his own private funds and almost going bankrupt doing it, going out, trying to find and return lost U.S. Marines?’ I'm like, this is what this (honor) is made for is someone like this. Of course, I said yes.”

Upon military retirement, LeHew and Noah reconnected. Now, as chief operating officer of History Flight, “I can dedicate a good portion of the second half of my life to going and finding lost soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and fulfilling that promise that we don't leave our fallen comrades behind,” LeHew said. “We now have over 389 recoveries of personnel in Germany, France, Belgium, Philippines, Tarawa and a lot of other research cases going on. And as of just a couple of months ago, 161 of those individuals have been positively identified and returned to their families. No other private organization has been able to do that in conjunction with the U.S. government.”

LeHew made national headlines last year when he and two of his fellow Marines, Coleman “Rocky” Kinzer and Ray Shinohara, walked 3,365 miles across the United States to raise awareness about the nation’s more than 81,000 POWs and MIAs, and to fundraise for History Flight. Called “Team Long Road,” they departed June 6, 2022, from the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor and ended in Newport, Ore., on Dec. 17. They walked along Highway 20, the Medal of Honor Highway, where they were celebrated by American Legion posts and members – especially in Oregon.

The American Legion spoke with LeHew to hear about his why and mission for the walk, and how the Legion can help with History Flight’s mission to recover and identify missing Americans. 

The American Legion: What inspired the nearly 3,400 mile walk across the United States?

LeHew: There was a couple of main keys. I think the main key was Covid. That stopped us 100 percent. (Prior to) we had a lot of momentum going on. We had a lot of momentum out in the Pacific, and I had six Army Air Corps crash sites we were working on in Europe in the summer of 2019. So we had operations going on worldwide. I employed a lot of people and a lot of veterans over there, and we were getting some really great results. Then come January 2020, like a bad Scooby-Doo episode, I'm calling my scientists to tell them to get out of those countries and get back home before they can't get back home again. After covid, I wanted to get our search teams back out into the world, and I needed people to know that they're out there doing this.

Then, I went to the post office one day (in his hometown of Fredericksburg, Va.), and I saw the POW/MIA flag was really tattered. I went inside and they said, ‘We're aware of that. We don't have anything to put up.’ So I went out and bought one and drove back down there and delivered it to them and said, ‘Could you please take that one down and put this one up?’ A lady that was at the post office, she was almost in tears and asked why I would do that. I had the opportunity to tell her why (the POW/MIA flag) mattered. She said, ‘I've worked in the post office for a lot of years. I never really knew that was what the (POW/MIA) flag stood for. You made me feel that flag.’ The POW/MIA flag flies secondary to the U.S. colors, the only flag in the United States of America that flies secondary to the U.S. colors in every state. In that discussion with her, what I found was I believe that we have generations that are now becoming more removed from the meaning of the POW/MIA flag. In Vietnam, you couldn't go in an American town and not find a boy who didn't come home. And by God, in World War II, there's five of them in every American town that didn't come home. We didn't see that in Afghanistan and Iraq. So those stories kind of stopped being told. And the younger generation, they’re not exposed to the stories, and then they die. Not only did the person die lying in an unmarked grave 78 years ago, it was like they're dying twice because their story doesn't exist. I felt that it was my responsibility to pass these stories down.

TAL: Do you feel your mission to bring awareness to those unaccounted for was accomplished?

LeHew: I think the mission was accomplished well before Newport. I called Rocky one time and I said, ‘I think I just created a website and a Facebook group. And I don't know how to do any of that. So can you log on and see what I just did and add yourself as a friend.’ I remember when Rocky and I were overjoyed because we had over 300 people (following) on Facebook. Now we have over 14,000 and hundreds joining every day and people are asking if there’s going to be something else. I wasn't prepared for people wanting this to keep going. I'm just trying to find a way to make that happen without killing myself and be a person that's constantly walking. I mean, there were some really bad days out there wondering if this is doing anything. You're hurting. You're missing your family, and you're just not seeing donations come in. Because in the absence of government funding or anything else, you have crazy chief operating officers who decide, I'm going to walk across the nation to raise money to help a lot of families who may or may not have their case put in the government's queue in the next few years.

Once we crossed the Mississippi River, I think people said, these guys are actually going to do what they say they're going to do. They're not just going to quit. Then people started donating because I don't think a lot of people want to donate to anybody right out the gate that has a wild thing and then they just take the money and quit two weeks later. I put a post on Facebook that said who we were and thanking everybody for all their support. Then I said, ‘We are down to the last 20 days on Route 20. In honor of each of these days of 20 days to the finish line I'm asking for people to make a $20 contribution for the 20 days we have left.’ Within days that just turned the tide of everything. It was like it was a catch phrase that they could resonate with. But it isn't about the donations and it isn't about the money. It's about the message. Yes, you need money in order to go do the jobs that need to be done. But the true metric of success was the message to America (of the 81,000 U.S. servicemembers still unaccounted for). I believe that message got out there in a way that's never been done before. I believe that message is now going to generate a lot of interest, is going to help bring more missing Americans home. So in of that fact, that mission was greatly accomplished.

TAL: How did the name Team Long Road originate?

LeHew: As we were mapping out the United States, we changed our start point a couple of different times. Then Coleman said he had never been to Boston. I'm like, the USS Constitution is Boston Harbor, that’s the oldest warship. And Coleman is a naval infantryman. Then we noticed there's a road that starts in Boston that goes all the way across the United States and ends in Newport. It’s America's longest highway, Highway 20. At the time we were planning this it had been 20 years since the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The longest road to me represented the longest wars that America has ever fought in. And then it’s the longest journey that these families have that their loved ones have never came home.

Just one after another after another the dominoes started to tie into the story on that highway. I couldn't find anywhere that anyone had ever hiked or chose to hike America's longest highway. So I said, you know, this is kind of like the Wright brothers. That's what we're going to do because no one's ever done this before.

TAL: You walked more than 20 miles a day, through 12 states for over six months while carrying a 40-pound rucksack. What was the response from people following your journey?

LeHew: One guy said he was on 17 medications, had a handicapped sticker on his window and could barely walk into the door at Walmart. He didn’t want the rest of his life to be like this, so he said each morning he started walking down to his mailbox and back. Then he walked to the end of the road and put on a pack and he said, ‘I put on the pack because it made me feel like a soldier again.’

All of a sudden, this guy is down to two medications, and he's over 10 miles a day. He says, ‘I don't put my handicap placard in the window. I purposely leave it off and I park at least 20 spaces away from the front of the Walmart entry.’ He says his health is a lot better mentally, physically. When we were talking about Route 20 and all this, never in my mind did it ever come across that this kind of thing was going to turn into a movement that inspired multiple generations of people, not just in the United States, but around the world, to be able to see the metaphors that were happening.

TAL: National Auxiliary President Vickie Koutz and National Security Commission Director Mario Marquez joined for part of the walk into Oregon. And Department of Oregon Second Vice Commander Dan Burks provided assistance too. What was The American Legion’s support throughout the walk?

LeHew: The overwhelming outreach from the Legion was tremendous. After visiting a Legion post, that post would call ahead to the next town that we were passing through. And then I had my buddy Mario, who was in the Marine Corps with me, (and Koutz) walk across the Oregon state border with us so that they could see what the response of a town was rather than just kind of walking out in the countryside like we were before. And Dan (Burks) called Legion posts in every town that we were passing through (along Highway 20). He walked with us and Dan would check on us. Even after we were past his town and his Legion post, Dan checked on us all the way across Oregon. He would say, ‘Hey, where are you today? Did you need any assistance? You need any help? Hey, I know this (a 1985 RV the team used as their support vehicle that LeHew said was off the movie “Spaceballs”) is becoming a problem. Do you need me? I'll drive 100 miles out to get you. Whatever you need.’ We had a great support and great reception wherever we went across Highway 20.

TAL: What was that feeling when your journey across the United States was complete?

LeHew: Rocky and I just looked at each other (on Dec. 17). It was just another day. We're going to put on the pack like we've done for the past six and a half months, and we're going to walk this last seven miles. And it was great because we've been used to walking 20 miles every day.  We had like four hours to cover seven miles so we just kind of took it slow. We told jokes, we told stories. We knew that about a mile out of Newport is when our time was going to be over together. That's when people are going to start showing up.

When you've been doing that for six and a half months, I don't think it really hit me probably until the following day when it was the first day I didn't have to wake up and actually walk. I had a choice that day and I didn't have to walk and I could lay in a hotel room and I could walk down to the beach and everybody's gone now. I can remember thinking to myself, did this really happen? Did I really walk across the entirety of the United States? And then somebody at the same time when I'm standing on the beach sent me a thing that said, ‘Hey, here's a weird stat for you, Justin. Do you know that you just walked one eighth of the way around the globe?/ I was like, you've got to be kidding me. I had no idea. Then you you're like, who does that?

TAL: Through History Flight, you have personally recovered servicemembers. What is it like to return a servicemember home to their family?

LeHew: In 2019, we located a trench in Tarawa with up to 33 men, one was Private Jacob Cruz who was killed in action on November 22 of 1943 during the (2nd Marine Division’s) invasion of the Japanese-held Betio Island (Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands). That was the third largest trench that had ever been found in a recovery history. And we own the other two as well. The best thing about that was we wheeled Private Cruz’s sister out to get her brother off the airplane. She was about 93 years old. That family had made promises to their parents and everybody else that they would never stop looking for Jacob, to bring him back home. Jacob’s mother had passed away, but her daughter had promised, ‘Mom, we won't stop looking for Jacob.’ And she's there to be able to fulfill that promise to her mom.

I think it's really good that there are other agencies that are available that may be giving families the only hope they have to get their grandfather back or to get their brother back. It's a pretty powerful business to be in.

(At History Flight) we just excavate, package (the remains) lovingly, and we send them to the labs. I firmly believe no privatized industry person should ever be the person knocking on anybody's door saying, ‘I just found your son,’ I just found anything. We have active-duty people that that's their job. I still firmly believe in my heart of hearts, I don't care if it was 80 years ago, the person should still show up at the door in that uniform and tell the family we just found your grandfather, because then they see their government living up to that promise that we won't leave somebody. It's not a private contractor or somebody doing that. A lot of people in the privatized industry don't believe that. They believe that, well, I should get to do the notification. You know, I did all the work. I should do this. No, I'll never sign on to that because I've had to be that guy before in uniform that told a family their son's not coming home. And that's the worst job I ever had in 31 years in the Marines. Now, on this side, after the Marine or the soldier, sailor, airmen, gives them a phone call and says, ‘Hey, we just found your grandfather after 78 years.’ I get to reach out to the family and now I don't have tears of sorrow anymore. The family is crying tears of joy. I think it's a pretty neat position to be in.

TAL: With History Flight, is it veterans recovering veterans?

LeHew: I have an international team of people who are doing this. So it's not just military personnel, it's scientists, it's other people from other countries. I have employed people from Ireland, from Spain. And it absolutely warms your heart to know that a scientist from Spain that really has no connection to the U.S. military would dedicate this portion of their life to searching and returning our missing in action, even though they didn't serve in the military. Then for those who are in the military, it gives me the opportunity as well to take veterans that may be having emotional issues or combat trauma or have a form of PTSD, or have anything else. I'm an equal opportunity employer in that, you know, bringing amputees over to work on the site and employing veterans to recover veterans. I honestly think I have the holy grail of platforms over here for veteran therapy for there is no one that walks off of any kind of site like that not effected for the rest of their life.

I've had veterans that say, ‘My biggest problem out of the military is I've never been able to find the purpose like I had when I was in the military.’ (History Flight has) a purpose and a passion to be able to fulfill that promise and also heal a hole in their heart. Maybe they didn't get to bring somebody home that was killed in action with them in Afghanistan or Iraq. Maybe even in Vietnam. Maybe that person, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not missing in action because we brought them all home but still you feel the loss that you couldn't bring your buddy home because he was killed in an IED attack right next to you. There's a loss in those people that I found out that no chaplain or amount of therapy really has been able to help a lot. But this has because they can work on something and bring someone home. And by way of doing that, they kind of heal themselves by relieving that guilt of, just that self-imposed guilt that even though you and I both know that was just the luck of the cards. By being able to give them a platform, this beautiful platform that is out there to be able to search for, locate and bring home servicemembers not only gives them closure, but heals their heart as well, that they've been able to provide that closure to an American family.

That's why I think I got the best thing going.

TAL: How can The American Legion help your mission of bringing home our missing U.S. servicemembers?

LeHew: This is a mission of The American Legion. I think the biggest lobbying thing that can be done is the Legion (continuing to) make this one of its core priorities. That's why it was absolutely awesome when the Auxiliary President (Vickie Koutz) came out (to walk) and said, ‘This is what I chose to make my core thing for my year. It's going to be POW/MIAs, their families and their service and sacrifice.’

Advocacy is the number one core component, I believe, of the mission and that is advocating to Congress to increase the funding level of the mission for the DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency). In other words, give the DPAA more money and allocate it. They can find more (missing U.S. servicemembers) that are out there in turn. They can also secondly, advocate for more use of the privatized industry to help really get at that 81,000 number and get it reduced as low as humanly possible because (the DPAA) can't do it themselves. In a very polarized society, this is the one thing that people can wrap their arms around that can collectively be good for everybody. It's a message that can be great. But I think we need to come together on this one. We need to do more for these families who gave everything because this is not a mission about the dead. This is more of a mission for the living and how that has impacted these families that lost all these boys and never got them back. We need to be able to still take care of them and say, you know what, just because your loved one is gone it doesn't mean that you were forgotten about too.

This is a mission that should matter every day, not just be remembered on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. This should be reminded every day. The POW/MIA flag is who we are as America. There are other nations in the world that don’t care about things like this. They are not out looking for their dead. And that’s what makes us different as Americans because do care. And this isn’t just a military concern.

How would you feel if you just kissed your kid goodbye yesterday and never knew what happened to him the following day? That has nothing to do with the battlefield in the military. Once you say that to people, they look at their family differently and it resonates with them. They want to be brought home. They don't want to be missing. No one wants to be missing. And everybody in America really can empathize with every family that has someone missing. They don’t want to be missing. They want to be brought home. I had one person one time say, ‘Well, you guys in the military, you volunteered for that. So you kind of knew what you were getting yourself into.’ I said, you know what? Partially right. Afghanistan and Iraq all the way back to about Desert Storm I said we were all volunteers, but we also had an understanding that dead or alive, I'm bringing my buddy home. And we grew up with that. But then you remind them that the guys in Vietnam, Korea, World War II, a lot of those guys didn't volunteer for anything. And they still went. And they didn’t come home.