WASHINGTON — Terry Sharpe strode onto the West Lawn of the White House on Monday morning, the U.S. Marine Band performing a patriotic tune as he arrived.
For Sharpe, a proud Marine veteran who served in Vietnam, it was as good as it gets.
And then it got better.
Sharpe looked up to see President Donald Trump waiting to greet him. “They tricked me,” Sharpe said, laughing about it all a few hours later. “Man, I wasn’t expecting that.”
Sharpe, 69, is a Summerfield resident best known as “The Walking Marine.” Each of the past eight years he’s completed a walk from his home in Rockingham County to Washington, a 300-mile trek intended to raise awareness to the fact that each day an average of 22 U.S. veterans take their own lives.
He estimates each of his journeys encompasses 4 million steps.
Sharpe usually undertakes his walk in May, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, he bumped this year’s hike back to July, hoping against hope the pandemic would be eradicated by then. He paid for his miscalculation.
Temperatures climbed as high as 104 degrees as Sharpe made his way north, heat registering higher still on the asphalt roads he followed.
“Terrible, brutal,” Sharpe said. “But there was no way I was going to give up. I wasn’t going to do that.”
He covered 10 to 16 miles per day, accompanied by members of a support team that followed in a van and by Wayne Jenkins, a fellow veteran who accompanied him on foot.
The two finished their march on Sunday. And on Monday, Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, asked Sharpe to join her in a ceremonial walk from the Washington Monument to the White House to greet his supporters and photographers.
Sharpe happily agreed.
“She’s a little thing, but she’s got a good stride,” he said. “She’s one great lady.”
Upon entering the West Lawn, Sharpe and Pence followed a walkway lined by supporters who applauded him. They crossed a red banner that read: “Finish line'' to find Trump waiting on the far side with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie.
Despite testing negative for COVID-19 earlier in the day on Monday, Sharpe was not allowed to shake hands with the commander in chief, due to pandemic protocol, he said.
Sharpe tries to keep his walks and fund-raising efforts as nonpartisan as possible, he said, noting of the presidency, "We need someone to get something done, or at least try to.”
After several minutes of exchanging pleasantries with Trump, Sharpe and members of his support team – most wearing red "Walking Marine" T-shirts – posed with the president for photographs.
Monday’s meeting between Sharpe and the president came thanks in large part to the efforts of U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-5th).
From 1995 to 2002, Foxx represented Rockingham County as part of her district as a state legislator. When first elected to Congress, she continued to represent a portion of the county for four more years.
She built lots of friendships in Rockingham County during those years, Foxx said, including one with Norma Kelly, whose late husband, Ray, was commander of the Rockingham County Veterans Honor Guard and commander of the Eden VFW.
Indeed, Kelly alerted Foxx to Sharpe's journey last week, and suggested the idea that Trump meet with the activist veteran, Foxx said.
“I promised I’d see what I could do,” Foxx said.
With a couple of calls to the White House by Foxx, a plan fell into place, she said. “Anytime I can help a veteran, I will,” Foxx said.
Meanwhile, Sharpe, who had planned to return home on Monday, decided to stay in the nation's capital an extra day.
“I’m worn slap out,” said Sharpe, who will make this year's annual hike his last. “I’m going to sleep as long as I can.”
“I’m almost 70, I’m getting too old for this,'' he said, joking that his Washington hotel apparently isn't accustomed to guests who rise as early as he does.
“I absolutely couldn’t find a cup of coffee at 4 a.m.''