With Congress gridlocked and non-essential federal groundskeepers furloughed, one man has stepped forward to ensure the manicured hedges and lawns of the nation's capital remain pristine in advance of this weekend's Million Vet March, a protest of veterans demanding their memorials remain open.
Chris Cox, 45, has never served in the U.S. military, but his respect and appreciation for our nation's veterans has inspired him give back. "You don't have to be a veteran to have a love of country," Cox explained in an exclusive interview with TheBlaze Wednesday evening. To that end, he turned a trip to a D.C. art convention into an opportunity to give back. "Everyone serves in a different way. I'll just cut a little bit of grass."
Armed with a leaf-blower, a lawnmower and the South Carolina state flag, Cox is on a one-man mission this week to clean up the National Mall and have it ready to welcome the veterans. It's not about politics, "it's just the right thing to do," he says.
When a cell phone camera captured Cox in action mowing the lawns surrounding the Lincoln Memorial, his story spread like wildfire across Twitter. TheBlaze featured the inspiring image on the blog and it became an instant hit on Facebook.
After trying his hand as a stand-in security guard looking after the memorials, Cox says he quickly found a more effective role for himself. “I figured out that I could play a... valuable role as a janitor, if you will,” he explained in an interview with All-News 99.1 reporter John Domen Wednesday. “So I started cleaning up the overflowing trash cans. I bought a blower and I’ve been blowing all of the trails, and today I cut the grass out here."
Listen, via ABC4:
“If they shut down our memorials, we’re still going to take the trash out, we’re going to clean the windows, we’re going to cut the grass, we’re going to pull the weeds, we’re going to do the tree work,” Cox said. In addition to trimming grass, Cox's busy work day Wednesday also included clearing a large 12-inch thick branch that had fallen across a pedestrian path near the Mall's reflecting pool.
When he's not working to clean up Washington's monuments and memorials, Cox makes a living as a "chainsaw artist" and small business owner. As the owner of Cox Carving based in Mount Pleasant, Cox carves his creations from the trunks of large cypress trees and delivers them to customers around the region from the back of his big red truck.
Cox's selfless gestures have garnered him big-time attention this week. It didn't take long for local press to identify the anonymous "lawn mower man" and his efforts earned him the nickname "memorial militia."
"It's all very surreal," Cox said of the attention. "I never wanted any of this," he added, explaining that he'd tried to keep his face out of the newspapers this week as the media clambered to cover the effects of the government shutdown. “I only want to inspire people to come out and make a difference.”
And inspire, he has.
"I've had a few volunteers show up," Cox said, including a mother and daughter duo who helped wash windows. "She's teaching her daughter a very important lesson," Cox told TheBlaze, noting the importance of serving others. Random strangers -- including some members of the Park Police -- have thanked him and others have stepped forward with monetary donations to help support his work.
On Facebook, one generous supporter posted: "Chris, if you need gas for your equip go to Capital Hill Exxon. Down Independence Ave. Its taken care of. They are expecting you."
Cox has even inspired a new Facebook campaign: Lawn Mower Guy for Congress. "Lawn mower man is the epitome of what it means to be a proud American!! Mow on!!'' one supporter wrote.
The National Park Police cannot condone Cox's mission for liability reasons, but for the most part have let him work, undisturbed.
"A couple of Park Police shook my hand and said, 'Carry on, we're proud of you,'" he told TheBlaze. But things changed Wednesday after "one bad apple" officer asked him to cease and desist.
"He saw me with my long hair and my beard. He probably passed judgment on me, questioned why I was there," Cox explained.
Nevertheless, Cox doesn't harbor any sore feelings toward the National Park Service. Instead, he says, Americans should respect that they're just trying to do their jobs. "Their job is to welcome you with open arms," he said, but noted that they aren't being allowed to do that during the ongoing shutdown drama. “I want to encourage my friends and fellow Americans to go to their parks and show up with a trash bag and a rake. Show up with a good attitude and firm handshake for the U.S. Park Service.”
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., represents Cox hometown in Congress and told USA Today that the wood-carving artist had visited his congressional office last week to sound off on the shutdown. "It turns out he had taken it upon himself since our visit last week to keep up the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam and World War II memorials and surrounding grounds,'' Sanford said. "He bought a lawn mower, a blower and told me he had spent the days and evenings since our visit picking up trash, cutting grass and blowing leaves to keep walkways clean."
And despite Wednesday's setback with the Park Police, Cox says his work will continue until the veterans roll into town on Sunday. "You don't get a lot of opportunities to serve your country, so when one pops up, you better be ready to go with it," he said. "That's how my father raised me."
Author's note: Tune in to TheBlaze TV Thursday at 5 p.m. ET for Glenn Beck's exclusive interview with Chris Cox, live from Washington, D.C.!