April 26, 2013

Soldier on the move

Dalton grad on mission to hike to all 50 state capitals

Rachel Brown

— When Sept. 11, 2001, “happened,” the first thing 1980 Dalton High School alumnus Mac McQuown wanted to do was re-enlist in the military, he said.

“I was too old to serve anymore,” the almost 52-year-old explained to a group of Dalton High students gathered to hear him on Thursday, “but I couldn’t sit by and do nothing.”

McQuown, who served first in the Army National Guard, then transferred to the Marines in the 1980s, said he never saw combat, but he wants to honor those who have and those who were in support roles. Now a Virginia resident, McQuown said he began a journey on Sept. 11, 2011, that will take him on foot to all 50 state capitals where he will talk with elected officials, veterans, community members and anyone who will listen to raise awareness of veterans’ sacrifices.

So far, he has visited seven capitals and walked through nine states. His next stop is Alabama. The entire trip is expected to be 15,000 miles and take at least six-and-a-half years to complete. He finished his 2,000th mile in Dalton. On Thursday, he walked about 11 miles along U.S. Highway 41 and Thornton Avenue to the Dalton Fire Department on School Street where a group of Patriot Guard Riders from several cities, firefighters, Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office deputies, Dalton police officers and others were waiting for him.

McQuown carries an American flag wherever he goes and dons his military uniform. Every pair of boots he wears is dedicated to a veteran. The ones he wore to Dalton were dedicated to Lance Cpl. Seth Sharp, who was born in Dalton and attended Pleasant Grove Elementary before moving to Adairsville with his father in 2000. He was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. McQuown dedicated the day to him, too.

At the fire department, community members circled around McQuown in welcome. Jo Anne Shirley, whose brother, Maj. Bobby Jones, has been missing in action since the 1970s and the Vietnam conflict, gave McQuown a hug and a bracelet as a memento.

“I will make sure he’s never forgotten,” McQuown told her.

Marine Brandon Lewis of Gordon County said he met McQuown the day before he came to Dalton, and the walking soldier invited him to follow him on the trip. Lewis said he suffered multiple wounds in September 2011 when an improvised explosive device went off while he was serving in the Middle East. He could have gone on medical leave immediately, he said, but his unit was low on staff, and he was concerned about how his absence would affect them, so he delayed.

“I didn’t want to mess up any of my guys, so I stayed in,” he said.

One person from his unit was killed during the deployment, he said, and six other guys he knew died, too. Lewis enlisted in the military because he loved his country, enjoyed the outdoors and liked guns, he said. Now, with a wife and a young daughter, he is looking to get out of the military and possibly open his own gunsmith operation.

Those are the kinds of stories McQuown said he doesn’t want people to forget, and he’s working to make his message public. He welcomes people to visit his website, operationwalkamerica.us, or contact him at (352) 210-6836.

From the fire department, McQuown and his escorts walked up Waugh Street to Dalton High School where JROTC students welcomed them, and he spoke to an auditorium full of Catamounts. Band members, JROTC members and others gave him a send-off.

Jose Jacobo, a senior at Dalton High, said he has enlisted in the Marines and appreciates what McQuown is doing.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “There are many organizations, but he’s doing something different.”

1st Sgt. Eugene Jackson, an instructor for the JROTC program at Dalton High School, said McQuown’s effort “serves one purpose — to bring attention to what’s happening to veterans who have served and their families.”

McQuown said his mission transcends politics.

“You can disagree with the conflict all you want, but the veteran is just doing his job,” McQuown said. “Don’t forget that.”