Published: July 28, 2013
The way Joe Lewis figures, he's a lucky man.
The retired fighter pilot served a combined 25 years in the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force. He has flown thousands of missions - some over Bosnia during Operation Deny Flight, others over Colombia in support of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
He has landed on aircraft carriers. He has been shot at while flying.
And he made it home to his family.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of other troops haven't been so lucky, and thousands of family members have been left to grieve.
"I'm blessed, and I want to do something for those families who aren't as blessed as I am," said Lewis, who founded the nonprofit Angels of America's Fallen last year after moving to Colorado Springs.
The charity picks up the tab for extracurricular activities for the children of fallen troops and first responders.
No child is left behind, Lewis said - not those whose parents committed suicide after leaving the service nor those whose parents died in stateside training accidents while on active duty.
"To the child, it's the complete loss of a parent either way," he said.
After retiring as an Air Force lieutenant colonel in 2011, Lewis kept thinking about a fighter pilot friend who died in a crash and the wife and child left behind.
His friend's wife coped with her husband's death by cutting ties with anyone connected with her husband, Lewis said.
"I was worried. How is his son growing up?" Lewis said. "Who's throwing the baseball for him?"
Lewis began researching the plight of the children of fallen troops. More than 16,000 military children have lost a parent since Sept. 11, 2001, Lewis learned.
The average age of a child when his or her parent died: 7.
Lewis found a fair number of grief camps aimed at providing those children with a short-term morale boost. He also found a handful of scholarships for those children.
But there was nothing to help them in between grief camp and college. For many children, that means more than a decade with little support or direction, Lewis said.
"That's 11 years of missing your biggest mentor, with the remaining parent typically going to work, back to school - or maybe that remaining parent didn't handle it well and turned to substance abuse," Lewis said. "These kids are at a higher risk for depression, criminal activity, suicide.
"They're making some choices that can affect the rest of their lives, and they're kind of doing it on their own."
Because Lewis couldn't find a nonprofit that assisted children for the long haul, doing so was his responsibility, he decided.
The charity's goal is to help children of the nation's fallen discover a passion and connect them with a mentor who shares that passion - a mentor who can serve as a positive role model and offer emotional support, too.
"The whole idea is for them to find an outlet, something to fill their after-school time," Lewis said.
"We want the families to proactively get in front of their kids and say, 'Hey, have you thought about something on this list?' And we'll make that happen. If they try basketball and it's not their thing, OK. What's next? Do they want to try karate? Flute?"
For Max King, that outlet is karate.
King's father, a Navy medic, died four years ago in a live-fire training accident at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
At the time, Max was 3. Now he's 7. He has spent most of his life without his father.
When his mother, Carrie King, ran into Lewis at a military spouse event in May, Lewis said his charity could pick up the tab for Max's karate lessons.
Now the Kings are entering the new school year with extra spending money. Carrie King plans to use it to enroll Max in soccer.
"The more activities for boys, the better," King said. "He's an only child. I love to have him around other kids in a fun environment."
Since the charity became official in January, it has assisted 81 children at an average cost of about $1,000 per child, Lewis said.
Not wanting to turn anyone away, Lewis closed the application window this year when funds started to run short.
But there are thousands of kids who could use the help the charity provides, Lewis said.
Since school and extracurricular activities are starting up again soon, Lewis wants to reopen the application window.
What keeps Lewis up at night: The need is greater than resources, especially considering the charity's mission to help all 16,000-plus children through age 18.
But the goal isn't unattainable, Lewis said.
"We're a big country. We're a generous country," he said. "Sixteen thousand kids at about a thousand dollars each - that's a lot of money, but it's doable.
"We're talking about taking care of a small percentage of the population that has given all. Can't we give something back?"
Read more about Angels of America's Fallen at www.aoafallen.org.