Patriot Golf Day reignites spirit, memories of Green Beret killed in Jordan
By AUSTIN MILLER | Kirksville Daily Express, Mo. | Published: July 20, 2019
KIRKSVILLE, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — Chuck Lewellen knows he's in trouble if the memories ever fade.
He wondered if people still remembered his son Matthew, who was killed in Jordan while serving as Green Beret in 2016. And, because of that fear, he wondered if anyone would turn out for the Patriot Golf Day on Friday at Kirksville Country Club that was created in remembrance of Matthew.
Chuck found out pretty quickly that the memory of his son is still strong.
Clint Fitzpatrick, the head PGA professional at KCC, said at least 70 people came out to play or just donate. And though he didn't have an exact number on Friday night since the silent auction was still going, Chuck expects the total amount raised to exceed $15,000, helped by a few anonymous donations of thousands of dollars.
"I can't tell you my expectations were met — they were exceeded by far," Lewellen said. "From people that didn't golf to golfers, just the whole community showing up, and our ending ceremony was amazing. So I'm on a high right now and I'm worn out."
As the event began just before 7 a.m. on Friday and lasted into the evening, and the sun stood out all day baking the competitors but not getting unbearable, Lewellen waited by the 18th green through the entirety of the event, thanking everyone for coming out and giving them a commemorative challenge coin. Though he hugged and shook the hands of everyone that played, he wasn't the only one who gave something.
Players, along with people who just stopped by the country club to donate money to the Matthew Lewellen Scholarship Fund, kept telling him stories they had about his son. Some of which he had never heard before and some he said he couldn't repeat because of how goofy his son was.
"The scary thing is you don't want people to forget who they were," Lewellen said. "So for me, that's kind of what this event is about, keeping his memory alive. And I think there's more than just the military. There are loved ones that are killed in car wrecks and accidents, so to those families, it means a lot to go up and remember who they lost. Because that's all we have left: our memories. ... For me, I've always said if I ever lose my memories and people talking about him, that's when it will get really tough. So today's one of those days that helps rejuvenate us and keeps us going forward."
Jake Sevits shared some of the same fears that Lewellen had. Sevits grew up with Matt and thought his friend's memory might have fizzled out. That same memory that caused him to fundamentally change who he was as a person.
Sevits had moved back to Kirksville in 2015 and was working on building the new house that he would move into with his growing family. But he had dealt with depression for a while and felt like he didn't have any direction in life. He didn't challenge himself and he sought hobbies that were tied up with monetary value. Sevits thought fixing up cars was a way to find meaning, hoping money would fill something in himself.
But as he was pouring the foundation for his home on Nov. 4, 2016, he got the call that Matt was killed overseas. And that tragedy, along with the birth of his son Hartley in December, forged the new foundation for Sevits' life.
"When Matt was taken, when he was killed, I realized there's not a material thing in this world that is worth my friend's life," Sevits said. "So why chase that stuff? Let's chase memories with our friends and our family, things that we can cherish our whole life. Rather buy new parts for your car, book a plane ticket to see your friend that's halfway across the country. That's when those things resonated with me, that that's where you need to invest your time and yourself."
And he feels the need to keep Matt's memory alive because of how much Lewellen meant to him and helped him grow as a person, husband and father.
"I try to touch on it when I talk to people, and I don't want it to sound like I'm bragging on myself, but I'm so proud of the person I am now as opposed to who I was three years ago, and that's directly related to the memory I carry of Matt," Sevits said. "If it wasn't for the person Matt was, I wouldn't be the person I am today. I'd give anything to have that friend of mine back, but we can't bring him back, it doesn't work that way. So all I can do is keep pushing forward and be better every day.
"I wouldn't have done any of this if it wasn't for me thinking about Matt. I want to give him the credit. And I want to encourage people to do the same."
Sevits, with the blessing of Chuck and Cindy Lewellen, gave his son "Matthew" as a middle name as a way to honor his friend. He soon started several veteran-focused running events, such as Run for the Fallen. Run for the Fallen sees people run all across the country with certain miles designated to remember service members who died on a certain day.
Sevits was there with Chuck and Cindy to run the stretch of road in North Carolina where Matt's name was announced, along with the families of the two other men who were killed at Matt's side in Jordan. Sevits also asked his friends from the Kirksville Class of 2007 to help buy a special flag for the Lewellens that had Matt's name stitched on it. His classmates quickly took care of that and had enough left over to pay for Matt's name to be engraved in the stone entryway to Spainhower Field, which Sevits fist-bumps when he takes early morning runs on the track.
At the end of the memorial mile, all of the names are read aloud and a corresponding flag is put into the ground for them. Sevits and Kristen Smith, who Sevits met during Run for the Fallen, re-enacted that ceremony Friday after the closing of the event. And Chuck said he had kept his composure throughout the day, but as he addressed the crowd that had stayed around, the tears hit as he knew what was coming.
But he did have a brief moment of comedy beforehand. Chuck was supposed to raise his hat as a cue for Sevits and Smith to run up the path from the 18th fairway and up to the announcer's stand at the country club. But, prior to actually wanting them to start the run, he took his hat off to wipe some sweat from his face, causing the runners to start early and subsequently be sent back. Chuck thought it was a moment his son would have had a great laugh at.
Friends and family remember Matt as a goofball, a carefree guy who didn't take himself too seriously.
Matt was a groomsman at Sevits' wedding. During a dollar dance, where male guests typically give a dollar to dance with the bride and female guests spend a dollar to dance with the groom, Matt cut the line of waiting women, grabbed Sevits' hand and dipped him on the dance floor. Sevits said he doesn't think Matt even paid his dollar.
Sevits' groomsmen attire was a pair of jeans and cowboy boots, which Matt didn't own a pair of. So Matt and his girlfriend, Renee Laque, went out to buy a pair. The couple had eaten some Mexican food prior to their trip and it was not settling very well in Matt's stomach. So he fought through his discomfort, found a pair that he liked, and left them and his credit card with Laque so she could buy them while he searched for a bathroom. Sevits' wedding was the only time Matt ever wore those boots and Laque gave them to Sevits, hoping he would always smile when he saw them.
"Every now and then, I'll get them out. It's probably been two years, but I put them on — even though they're a little bit big for me — and I jumped on a motorcycle and I just went on a motorcycle ride," Sevits said. "I was like, 'These need a little sunshine and I'll think about Matt when I'm wearing them.' Then I put them right back."
And does he still smile when he sees them?
"Oh yeah. I smile when I think about everything about Matt."
The money raised from the fundraiser will be split between Matt's scholarship fund, which will be awarded to a Kirksville student next year, and Folds of Honor, which also creates scholarships for the spouses and children of fallen soldiers. Chuck said a Folds of Honor representative told him they would be fine with $50, but Chuck couldn't give them so little. He said he will probably give them 25 percent and keep 75 percent for the scholarship.
He's still working on what criteria he will establish for the student that will receive that scholarship but has until February to do so.
With his name being attached as a means to give assistance to future students of Kirksville, Matthew Lewellen's name will continue to live on in the community. The one thing his family and friends desperately need to continue.
"It's just something that — I guess I constantly strive to make sure I maintain that memory and his legacy," Sevits said. "Matt's not with us anymore and we can all easily just move on. But things like this come together and we're donating back to the community, we're donating back to a charitable organization and — not to mention — look at all these people out here having a good time talking to each other and talking about Matt. It just promotes positivity. I can't even say what it means (to me) because that's paramount, we have to have that in today's age."