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El Paso County Veteran of the Year helps children of fallen military and first responders

Joe Lewis El Paso County Veteran Award
Posted at 3:12 PM, Jun 25, 2024

EL PASO COUNTY — "I always wanted to fly since before I can remember," said retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joe Lewis. "Flying jets was really what I wanted to do."

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joe Lewis as a child
Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joe Lewis as a boy with his "U-fly-it" kit.

Lewis eventually made that dream come true in the military. The son of a Marine, Lewis was aware at a young age that a life of military service meant deep sacrifice.

Mother and Father of Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joe Lewis

"My dad was a Marine in Vietnam, and he was infantry," said Lewis. "If he hadn't made it home, I never would have existed, and that kind of impacted me as a kid. I really thought about how far the ripples go forward when someone doesn't come home. Then I ended up joining the military, started with the Army National Guard right out of high school, and turned 18 at Fort Sill."

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joe Lewis in Aviano
Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joe Lewis pictured at Aviano NATO Base in Italy.

From Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Lewis headed to the Marine Corps where he flew F/A-18 hornets in combat for five years until he says he broke his back in training. Lewis transitioned out and became a pilot for American Airlines, but went back to active duty with the Air Force after 9/11. His career spanned 25 years before he retired from the Air Force in 2011 as a lieutenant colonel.

Dianne Derby: What does it mean to you to be a veteran?

Joe Lewis: It's an honor. I gained so much from the different branches, a really strange career, so I got to do all kinds of really neat things.

During that time, Lewis never let go of the gratitude he and his father both got to come home, something several of his friends did not get to do.

"Two of my friends in the Marine Corps had babies on the way they never even got to meet," Lewis said. "Knowing that those kids had to grow up their whole life, but most importantly, through their most crucial formative years as kids without the guidance and support of their fathers, it really struck me. Their dads were great guys, and they would have been great fathers. It made me think what would happen if I didn't make it home for my sons."

With that thought began his determination to start a non-profit to support the families left behind.

Joe and Shelli Lewis
Shelli and Joe Lewis pictured at the 2023 Angel Gala.

Joe Lewis: We went to Dairy Queen and I told my wife what I was going to do. And it shocked her.

Dianne Derby: What were her words?

Joe Lewis: I don't remember exactly the words. I remember her reaction more than I remember the words. Shock because the normal thing would have been to go back to the airlines.

Angels of America's Fallen

Instead, he and his wife founded Angels of America's Fallen, a non-profit that pays for children's after-school activities like piano, sports, and dance. Children like Trey whose father was killed in the line of duty serving as a police officer when the boy was just 6 years old. Angels of America's Fallen has been supporting Trey's passion for football for many years now, adding in some special surprises along the way with a chance to meet his father's favorite football team: the Auburn Tigers.

"I contacted Auburn and said, 'I'd like to do something special for Trey,'" said Lewis. "They let me take him to one of the games, get on the field before where the war eagle flies around the lands, and meet the coach and the players. It was pretty cool."

Dianne Derby: You get to be part of the joy in a tremendously sad circumstance.

Joe Lewis: Yes. That's one of the best things about this is we focus on the positives and possibility.

Lewis says the non-profit supports each child until they are 19 years old. Right now he says they have 550 children enrolled, but he says his waiting list includes 670 more.

"We all have a heart for getting those kids enrolled," Lewis said. "The sooner you can get them engaged in something, the better off they're going to be. All the activities that we support have been shown to really help them with staying in school, better grades, avoiding substance abuse. They are at-risk youth after the traumatic loss of their parent. They're at greater risk of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, dropping out of school, and even suicide.

Lewis recognizes that much of his work isn't just the financial support, it's the emotional support, too.

"In most cases, it's a young widow, who hasn't fully dealt with her own grief yet, because she went into survival mode to take care of her kids," said Lewis. "We might make a call that we think is going to be a quick five-minute call, to say how are they doing, we've paid for two months of piano did they want to keep going, should we pay for more, can turn into an hour-long phone call, just being there and listening."

Lewis' work was recognized earlier this year by El Paso County when he was named Veteran of the Year for his exemplary military and community service and encouragement to other local veterans.

"I was surprised to get it in the first place because there are so many so many deserving veterans in our community," Lewis said. "I think it gives me an opportunity to serve a little better, maybe to raise more awareness about Angels of America's Fallen. That's my passion. That's my mission."

Joe Lewis and Ryan

A mission of support to honor the children left behind.

"It's really impactful," Lewis said. "It's impactful to that remaining parent, it's impactful to the kids, and it's impactful to me and our staff and our board and everybody that volunteers and plays a role in making this happen."

Since 2017, the El Paso County Veteran of the Year program has honored and recognized El Paso County veterans who have served their country and made significant contributions to the local veteran community.

To learn more about Angels of America's fallen click here.

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