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NEWS | June 3, 2015

Journey from loss to honor: Army sergeant running 50 marathons for fallen

By Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

"What right looks like"

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jeffery Lewis, sat at a local bar unable to recognize the reflection glimmering off the amber colored liquid in his pint sized glass in June 2012.

The unfamiliar person quickly erased as he took a few swigs of the liquid in hopes of erasing the anguish and pain of his recent divorce.

The feeling didn't subside, instead Lewis saw himself becoming a person he didn't recognize - a person no one, not even his hero, his grandfather, would be proud of.

"I could see myself going down that path, and I knew that wasn't me," he said. "I just thought, 'I can't do this.'"

As an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter crew chief and platoon sergeant, Lewis said he knew he had a responsibility not only to himself, but to the Army and his troops.

"These soldiers are looking up to me," said the platoon sergeant. "I have to give them a good role model. I have to lead"

He looked to what his grandfather taught him all his life and what the Army instills in young soldiers to this day, "What right looks like."

"Anything my grandfather told me was the right thing to do, so anything I do in the military, I do for him," said Lewis of the man who prodded him to join the service and to reenlist. "Anytime I saw him, he would tell me 'I'm proud of what you do,' and for me, that's all he ever had to say."

To keep with the Army and his grandfather's shared motto, Lewis looked to new means of coping that would make his grandfather proud and instill a sense of mentorship toward his troops. 

Lewis found running, and found that he was good at it.

It started by just staying a little longer after physical training where he added a few extra miles to his run.

"It became my outlet for anything," said Lewis who would use his runs to decompress from daily and life stressors. It became so much of a release, that Lewis quickly made his way up to 20 miles. "Running helps in every facet of my life. If something's happening, I can just go and run and it helps get my mind straight and evens me out."

A loss and new journey

When he hit the 20 mile mark in April 2013, he knew it was time to run a marathon.

At that same point in time, something happened. His hero died.

Lewis had seen his grandfather three weeks prior to his passing, then went to his funeral where he paid his condolences and said his final goodbye.

Lewis knew this would be the most trying time of his life, so he took to his coping mechanism and ran his first marathon not just for his own outlet, but to honor the man who shaped him into the Soldier he is today. The running didn't take the pain completely away. Lewis will always miss the man who taught him how to fish and ride his bike. But, running did help him clear his head and control the emotions circulating throughout his body, said Lewis.

"Without him, I wouldn't be where I am today that's why I ran it for him," said Lewis, who is now a platoon sergeant with the 1st Battalion, 222nd Aviation Regiment at Fort Eustis, Virginia.

Something bigger than himself

Upon completing his first marathon, Lewis found running became much like what the Army was to him: something bigger than himself.

He looked into ways to continue running for others and joined the group Wear Blue Run to Remember, a group who runs to raise awareness for fallen or injured Service members and their families.

It was at his first marathon with the group that Lewis saw a man complete his 50th state marathon. Lewis said he knew he could run multiple marathons without much issue, as the sport came easy to him. The thought of running toward a milestone like 50 states intrigued him, but he wanted to find a way to bring more purpose behind his running.

"I thought to myself, 'how can I run these 50 marathons and make it more than just about myself,'" he said. "I wanted my journey to have a reason."

At this point Lewis was already running for fallen comrades that he knew, the pilots of the OH-58 Kiowa helicopter that died during his deployments.

"For me it's the only real honor I can give to somebody because we didn't get to go their real funeral," said Lewis.

As a Kiowa crew chief, Lewis would see the pilots board their lightly armored helicopters both at home station and on deployments. Sometimes they would go into combat zones and sometimes on rescue or training missions, but no matter the task, Lewis always had to pray that all would return. Up to the mission departures, Lewis knew he had done his diligence in ensuring the helicopter was ready for flight. He checked each section of the bird's mechanics and reviewed his work with the pilots. Every day for a year or more, he and the pilots went through this routine oftentimes diverting from mechanical references to talk about each others' goals, past, favorite movies, sports teams and more or less.

"These are people you see and talk to on a daily basis, you gain camaraderie with them and they become like a brother or sister," Lewis said of the pilots. "You see them every single day and if it was just one day that they weren't there - it's really difficult."

Not having met each Soldier he was running in honor of, as the pilots that died were from his sister flight, Lewis looked up the names of his fallen brothers as a way to get to know with them.

"I just always try to think about them the whole time because that's what propels me to push," said Lewis. "I don't see it as something that I'm doing for myself, or that I'm gaining anything from it. I am just doing it for them because I would do the same thing if I was put in their situation--I would have followed the call."

A new purpose

Shortly after witnessing the 50th marathon milestone, Lewis went to look up a name of one of his sister flight's members using a site dedicated to fallen Kiowa pilots, and found that the site listed 49 names of those who died during different contingency operations and training exercises.

"I saw the list and thought, I really need to fulfill the rest of these because a I ran the first couple for the people I already knew, so I told myself I had to run for the rest of them," said Lewis.

For Lewis, not knowing the rest didn't matter because each unit he had been with had the same camaraderie and each pilot was the same caliber character.

"I'm proud of the cavalry and our mission that we do," said Lewis. "When they went into their aircraft and did their missions, they were doing it for someone else. They put themselves in harm's way because they were thinking about the other people."

That same character is what Lewis aims to embody as he runs to bring each fallen member's story to the forefront.
"There are a lot of names and nobody really knows what they did. If something big happens in their death, it catches the attention of the media, but some of these people will never be recognized, so each state and each day is for them," he said. "I can put myself through a little bit of pain. A little bit of pain is different from what they went through."

He has run with calluses and sore muscles, and has funded his way to each state thinking nothing of the impact on his body and wallet as he has goals in mind to not only complete each marathon, but place. However, the medallions aren't for him.

"They deserve the best I can possibly do," said Lewis. "If I can pull a first, second or third for that person, I feel that that's the best way to honor them. If I gave up on the course that's not acceptable because they didn't give up on us. They didn't say 'no, I'm not going to take that mission.' They knew they were going into combat and they didn't say no, so I'm not going to give up."

Now on his 20th marathon, Lewis aims to place at each event, and has his eyes set on qualifying for the Boston Marathon, a run requiring a 03:05:00 marathon time for Lewis' age group. As of now, Lewis is five minutes short of qualifying, but has shed 35 minutes from his personal run time--a feat he said he owes to his comrades.

"It's difficult at times, but it's really rewarding to know that each step that I take and each time I start on that start line it's going toward honoring somebody," said Lewis, "We all have certain roles to play and our pilots did just that, and I am very proud of what they do, so that gives me a lot of fuel when I need it."

As Lewis continues his journey to honor, he knows he is doing something that would make his grandfather proud, partly because his grandmother told him he would be proud, but mostly because Lewis knows carrying these legacies is what "right looks like."

To view Lewis' Journey, visit