KIRKSVILLE, Mo. — This Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of the day Cindy and Chuck Lewellen's lives were changed forever.
The two of them have run their family-owned restaurant, Pancake City, just off North Baltimore Street in Kirksville, Missouri for around three decades, but a special display outside the breakfast spot was added in the last year.
A memorial, featuring American flags and two statues of soldiers, is a dedication to their son, Matt.
A memorial for Matt Lewellen sits outside his family's restaurant, Pancake City, in Kirksville, Missouri.
On Nov. 4, 2016, Matt died in a tragic murder while serving in Jordan.
His death sparked a controversial trial, in which surveillance video was later released of Matt’s last moments for the world to see.
The man responsible for his death now sits in a jail cell.
However, for Cindy and Chuck, the pain still very much lingers.
On the first anniversary of their son’s death, they want to tell his story.
A story of a dream, hard work, sacrifice, family, and, on Nov. 4, tragedy.
THE RISE OF A SOLDIER
Matt Lewellen was well-known around Kirksville High School.
As a standout athlete and prom king, Matt was known as a well-liked student who could get along with nearly everyone.
“He was always happy, always had a smile,” explained his mother, Cindy. “He was always kind and wanted people to be happy. He was always a peacemaker.”
Matt would later go on to attend both Truman State University and the University of Kansas.
However, from a young age, friends and family members told 41 Action News Matt felt like he had a calling in the military.
While at KU, his father said Matt told the family he wanted to enter the armed forces.
“I think 9/11 had a lot to do with a lot of soldiers joining,” Chuck Lewellen explained. “I also think it was about serving and being patriotic. I think it was proving to himself that he could do something that very few can.”
Matt entered basic training and over time was able to rise in the ranks.
The training tested him both mentally and physically but he never looked back on his decision.
Matt's parents, Chuck and Cindy Lewellen, tell their son's story to 41 Action News Reporter Tom Dempsey in their Kirksville home.
“I didn't want him to change,” Cindy explained. “I got the first letter. ‘It’s great. They’re working us really hard. They’re smoking us.’ Matt was doing what he loved and what he was meant to do.”
Matt’s dedication and hard work would lead him to become a member of the Army’s elite force, the Green Berets.
He would later see action in Afghanistan and be sent to Jordan.
Despite the rigors of being in the service, his parents said he always made time for his family.
“If there was ever an event in Kirksville, he somehow always made it back,” Chuck explained. “He made it back for his sister’s senior softball game in college. His older brother was getting married and he was somehow able to make it back.”
Matt would continue to be his kind, warm-hearted, and hard-working self through the years.
However, everything changed for his family on Nov. 4, 2016.
As a soldier in the special forces, Matt Lewellen often kept details of his missions tight-lipped.
In the fall of 2016, he was in Jordan for a CIA mission to train Syrian rebels.
On Nov. 4, Chuck and Cindy can remember the moment they heard the news.
“My mom, who follows everything, texts me and said, ‘Is Matt okay?” said Chuck.
Reports had slowly been coming in about a shooting at the King Faisal airbase near Al-Jafr, Jordan.
From the moment she heard the small details, Cindy told 41 Action News she had bad thoughts about what happened.
Worry about her son led her to driving around Kirksville and searching parking lots to see if any military officers had traveled to the area to deliver the tragic news.
“I was going to drive through the parking lots of the motels to see if I saw any plates for Tennessee because I figured that's where they’d be coming from,” she explained.
“I just had that feeling,” Chuck said. “The phone rang. I remember looking at the number. I knew right then."
While entering the military base, Matt and another Green Beret, Staff Sgt. Kevin McEnroe from Tucson, Arizona, were shot and killed after getting ambushed.
A third Green Beret, Staff Sgt. James Moriarty from Kerrville, Texas, died in a gunfight moments afterward.
Cindy Lewellen wears a necklace with her son's picture on it.
"We didn't know what happened, just knew he wasn't coming home," Cindy explained. "It was a long, long night."
While details were slow to come out regarding the incident, his parents were told the unit had failed to follow proper gate procedure when entering the base.
Sensing something that didn't seem right, Cindy and Chuck embarked on a mission to get justice for their son.
QUEST FOR JUSTICE
The response from the Jordanian government immediately brought skepticism from Chuck and Cindy Lewellen.
“We started reading reports early that they had ran a gate,” Chuck explained. “We knew none of that made sense. Green Berets are not going to be just running through a gate.”
On top of dealing with the heartbreak of losing a son, the parents felt there was an unjust aftermath to the shooting.
The Jordanian government had sent letters to the families of the soldiers expressing condolences, but Chuck and Cindy said they did not go far enough.
“It was quite insulting,” Cindy explained. “It was totally not taking responsibility for the soldier who executed these Green Berets.”
Seeing a situation play out that left them feeling cheated, Chuck and Cindy joined together with the families of the other fallen soldiers to fight for their sons.
Chuck Lewellen wears a memorial pin for his son, Matt.
They traveled to Washington, D.C., met with investigators, and told media outlets the story of the tragedy.
The couple wanted to keep the spotlight on the shooting and bring about change in the case.
“It was going to take us to get them (Jordan) to hold their soldier accountable for murder,” Chuck explained. “It took us all three families fighting for our sons.”
The families conducted media interviews calling out the government for the response to the tragedy.
The parents also sent letters and spoke with congressional leaders to push Jordan to put the guard on trial.
“We were trying to keep it in the media as much as possible,” Chuck said. “We finally were able to put enough pressure on that Jordan decided this wasn't going away.”
The push for justice eventually led to a trial against the guard, M’aarek Abu Tayeh, earlier this year.
Chuck and Cindy both traveled to Jordan for hearings in the case and were able to see the man who shot and killed their son.
"It's like you’re looking at someone who took everything away," Chuck explained. "He’s just kind of a little guy that had an M-16 and shot our sons. I can’t lie and say there weren't times I would’ve been happy to serve justice."
Abu Tayeh defended his actions by saying he feared the base was under attack.
The trial even led to outrage in Jordan, with protesters saying the case represented an attempt by the country’s government to make good with an ally.
The official military photo of Matt Lewellen.
“It’s hard to explain until you go through this,” Cindy explained. “You never know how you’re going to react.”
The trial ended with Abu Tayeh being sentenced to life in prison with hard labor after the soldier was found to have acted against orders and not in self-defense.
While the sentence may be viewed as appropriate, Chuck told 41 Action News that a life sentence in Jordan could lead to the soldier getting freed in around 20 years.
“I’m sitting there thinking he’s going to be my age, maybe a little older, when he gets out if he serves that long at all,” Chuck explained. “We’ll never have our son. Twenty years seems kind of weak for killing three elite special forces.”
A motive for the shooting still remains unknown and investigators did not find a link between Abu Tayeh and terorrist groups.
Following the trial, the Jordanian government publicly released surveillance video of the incident to provide clarity on the shooting.
Lewellen’s unit can be seen slowly driving up to the base before shots are fired.
Smoke comes up from Lewellen’s truck before the Green Berets in the two cars behind him jump out for safety.
Minutes later, with the trapped U.S. soldiers holding up their hands, the Jordanian guard is shown chasing the soldiers and shooting at them.
For Chuck and Cindy, it was important for others to see the video.
“You saw that there was no gunshot and there was nothing before he opened fire,” Cindy said. “That was what we wanted. We wanted Americans to see. We felt it was important to clear their names. They did nothing wrong.”
Chuck added that the surveillance video reinforced the nature of the crimes that claimed the lives of the Green Berets.
“As far as I'm concerned, they were executed,” he told 41 Action News. “They were sitting in a car.”
ONE YEAR LATER
This Saturday will mark one year since the attack occurred in Jordan.
While the days and months following the tragedy have been filled with sadness and anger, they have also been met with support.
Chuck and Cindy both recalled memories of the day Matt’s body was taken in a procession to the Missouri Veterans Cemetery in Jacksonville last year.
“Literally, there were people lined up for 45 miles,” Chuck explained.
Cindy added that the two of them received thoughtful cards and items following Matt’s death.
“We had a quilt,” explained Cindy. “People sent us prayer shawls. There were portraits people painted.”
Some of the memorial items can be seen around the family’s home.
For Matt’s parents, the show of caring for others was crucial following the tragedy.
“We’ve been incredibly blessed with the outpouring of support and honor of our son,” Cindy explained.
During the meeting with Matt’s family, plans for the one-year anniversary were still unknown.
However, Chuck and Cindy knew the day would be met with plenty of emotion.
“I’ve not really thought about it coming up,” Cindy explained. “I think maybe we’ll go to the cemetery as a family.”
Above all else, the family hopes to keep Matt’s legacy going.
“Its hard to think of two years, five years, and 10 years without Matt,” Chuck explained. “We just take it day by day.”
While the pain from Matt’s death still remains, Chuck and Cindy hope to keep telling the story of their son moving forward.
“Our stories are the only way they’ll continue to know him. That's what we'll continue doing,” Matt’s father said. “Any opportunity we have to talk about him, we’ll cry and talk.”