Rocky Kinzer, left, and JD LeHew walk past the Philomath Museum on Wednesday. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Nearing the conclusion of an epic 3,365-mile walk on Highway 20 across America to raise awareness for soldiers missing and killed in action, Marine Corps veterans Justin “JD” LeHew and Coleman “Rocky” Kinzer paused for a few minutes at midday Wednesday to chat with folks in front of Philomath Fire & Rescue’s Main Street station.

Although their legs must be tired from all of those miles and their backs sore from the 40-pound packs they’ve been hauling, the pair had smiles on their faces for those who had been waiting to greet them. They posed for photos, shook a few hands and seemed to enjoy the moment before starting back on their trek westward toward the coast.

The walk through Philomath represented another example of the real America for the three Marines making the journey — the third being Raymond Shinohara, who was ahead in a support vehicle.

LeHew said his walking partner, Kinzer, has a great way of describing the way they’ve seen America.

“When we were in the Midwest, he talked about seeing the bones of America, the industrial age and seeing these towns that used to be the epicenters of trade and industry,” LeHew said. “And it warms your heart because you actually see them attempting to save that and revitalize the old buildings instead of tearing them down. They’re bringing people back into these communities and you can see that all the way.”

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Moments before taking that short break in front of the fire station, LeHew, 52, and Kinzer, 45, had walked past the old Philomath College building, which was saved from destruction nearly a half-century ago and continues to serve as a community centerpiece as the Philomath Museum.

“Route 66 gets all the attention but Route 20 seems to have done all of the work is what we have seen,” LeHew said.

JD LeHew, left, and Rocky Kinzer approach the Philomath Fire & Rescue station, which raised a U.S. flag on their ladder truck for the occasion. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Beyond those observations from the road, the three Marines are on a mission. They chose for their journey the longest highway in America, which runs from Boston to Newport. Their date and site of departure both hold significance in this country’s military history — June 6 (D-Day) from the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor.

“There are still 81,000 U.S. service members from America’s past wars from World War I all the way to Vietnam that are still missing and deserve to come home,” Kinzer said. “We need to commit the resources to bringing them home.”

Shinohara joined the pair on Aug. 18 in Chicago. The three served together during their time in the Marines.

Along the walk, the retired Marines have been honored in various ways for the challenge they’ve undertaken. Folks cheer them on, motorists honk their horns while driving by, groups walk with them for a stretch through their communities and they’ve received various small gifts — all of those things happening in Philomath.

Catherine Berry, of Philomath, waited most of the morning for a chance to meet with JD LeHew, left, and Rocky Kinzer. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The receptions that they receive does not come as a surprise.

“I think it’s what Rocky and I both know about America … that’s why we became Marines,” LeHew said. “That’s why you find out in the 12 states we’ve walked across, you find more similarities in people than you do differences in them — especially along Route 20.”

Neither Kinzer nor LeHew had ever been on Highway 20 prior to the journey. The road includes some pretty lonely stretches along the way — Wyoming comes to mind.

“Actually, you hear that from a lot of people but when you’re walking, you tend to find and see things that other people don’t see,” LeHew said. “And when you’re driving, people will always tell you, ‘you know, there’s nothing in the next 40 miles.’ That’s because to them, there is nothing and that 40 miles goes by within an hour. It takes us two days to get there.

“When you don’t have anything for two days, you tend to find things that people don’t see,” LeHew continued. “So Nebraska, Wyoming and a lot of those experiences were really beautiful like that.”

Kinzer did need to interrupt to make a point: “A lot of wind out there, though, I’ll tell you that.”

Philomath Fire & Rescue raises the American flag on a ladder truck on Wednesday morning. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

So what will they do when they reach the end of the line in Newport? How about a jump into the ocean?

“I think Ray will — Ray’s up here in the safety vehicle — he jumped into a river back in the Santiam Pass,” LeHew laughed. “It didn’t last long and he was back out.”

As for how they might feel, LeHew called it a double-edged sword.

“We’ll all be happy to leave, to get off here after six months of walking with these packs 20 miles a day,” he said. “You’re pretty happy to do that but there’s also an element of you’re not going to be able to re-create a lot of that again.”

After the trip ends with events on Dec. 17-18 in Newport, the three men will head back to their homes — LeHew to Virginia, Kinzer to Hawaii and Shinohara to Guam.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.