In the wake of the July 16 attacks, Chattanooga reeled, grasping at ways to begin healing with prayer, candlelight vigils, and community members stepping up to hold one another in grief.
Joshua Kapellusch did his part, but on the one-year anniversary he did something else, too: he drove nearly 2,500 miles in a truck of his own design and creation to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to fly an American flag in honor of the service members who died.
And he plans to do the same thing this year.
“It’s about never forgetting,” he said. “Never forgetting those Fallen Five and their sacrifice.”
The Fallen Five Drive, as Kapellusch has named his annual journey, is an effort to “carry their memory across the country,” and he considers it both a personal and public mission for healing. A veteran himself who struggles with depression as a result of his experiences, he said that process remains vitally important years after.
“Doing something like this really helps me heal, because it takes my attention off myself,” he said.
“It’s something I’ve struggled to acknowledge. I know there are other people, whether they’re in the military or not — we all struggle with different things. But when you see somebody down and out, you don’t kick dirt in their face, you pick them up and carry them.”
His truck is easily recognizable around the Chattanooga area. It’s an open-top, lifted 1972 Chevy Blazer with decals in the style of a World War II fighter plane. It also sports a large solar panel and several tanks for various fuels he’s remodeled the truck to run on.
“It’s the world’s first five-fuel truck,” he said.
That’s a point of pride for Kapellusch, who would like to see his home country reduce its dependence on foreign oil. He said the truck runs on natural gas, propane, E85 and ethanol, gasoline and solar power, and he can drive well over 2,000 miles without refueling if need be.
“We have plenty of fuel here domestically. It’s about making technology work for you instead of working for technology,” he said. “I’m not going to raise my three boys to go to war for dirty oil. This is my answer for that.”
But no matter how infrequently one has to stop for gas, the drive to San Francisco and back is daunting. Fortunately, Kapellusch met John Hopson, a Marine and a lieutenant in the Tennessee State Guard, just a few days before he left on the first trip.
“He says, ‘I’m leaving next week.’ Then he mentioned something about how hard it was going to be to get that many miles in himself,” Hopson said. “We decided to do it and I’d be his driving partner. We decided that within the first hour of meeting each other.”
The experience was particularly poignant for Hopson, who served for several years with the unit of Marines who were attacked at the reserve center. Several men he knew were there, but none of them were harmed.
“I served in that unit. It was family,” he said. “It struck home so deeply and so strong and I was angry for a long time. Josh provided a very positive outlet. It was an amazing coping mechanism,” he said.
For both of them, the physical act of driving cross-country and hanging the flag was more therapeutic than any words or memorial services could be. Kapellusch said it was a foggy morning when they finally arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge, and hanging the flag at the halfway point made the whole undertaking more than worthwhile.
“Seeing that flag, it was like, we made it. We did it. Like a mission completed. When it was flying, it was a moment when everything felt right,” he said. “It’s a scar on our past, but scars make you tougher in a way. The flag and the truck, it’s all about carrying that mission.”
Hopson said watching the flag, he thought of his brothers, the ones he served with and those who came to the before and after him.
“I was proud of the service and sacrifice they gave. Everything that flag stands for and means to us as well what it took to get us there,” he said. “It seemed fitting — memorializing someone with an action and actually doing something instead of just saying words.”
The flag has remained folded and tucked away until time to make the trip again. Kapellusch originally planned to leave today with his girlfriend, but needs to raise the money to set out. His goal is to crowdfund $5,000 — $1 for every mile of the trip.
He’s taking donations through his website at fallen5drive.org from individuals or businesses and organizations.
Mountainview Offroad in Ringgold, Ga., has signed on as a sponsor, and general manager Lebron Clark said he’s proud to be part of the endeavor.
“People don’t need to forget what happened in Chattanooga,” he said. “Sometimes those incidents kind of get pushed to the wayside with everything else that’s going on. [Kapellusch] is going above and beyond. It can’t be overlooked.”
Clark said Kapellusch is a regular customer and they decided to provide him with a free set of tires once they saw the rough shape his old tires were in. He said he’s a veteran himself so the undertaking resonated deeply with him.
“Two-thirds of my employees are veterans and it’s something I don’t take lightly,” he said. “People, at times, forget what they do for us.”
Kapellusch is looking forward to making the trek this year and for many years after, whenever he gets the funding.
When he does, he said he’ll stand, watching the flag on a bridge thousands of soldiers and sailors once traveled under on their way to fight the enemy abroad and thinking about their sacrifices and the sacrifices of the Fallen Five.
“You’re thinking about the five men who died and their families and Chattanoogans and people who came together and cried together,” he said.
“This is really about them. It’s an honor to complete that mission.”
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at email@example.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.
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