AUGUSTA — State Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, never knew her dad. He was killed in 1944, near the end of World War II while serving with the U.S. Army in the Philippine Islands.
Haskell joined a group of lawmakers and surviving family members of other Mainers who lost their lives serving their country since Sept. 11, 2001, as the Summit Project brought its mission and a display case to the State House Hall of Flags on Tuesday.
In the case are stones, etched with initials and dates. Beside them are photographs and short biographies of the people for whom the stones have been selected.
The project, a nonprofit organization, honors fallen service members by organizing hikes to the summits of mountains in Maine and around the globe. The hikes come with a catch, however, in that all participants must carry memorial stones inscribed with the initials of a fallen Maine soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.
The volunteer participating in the hike must carry the stone to the summit and back down again. The effort is meant to provide a physical reminder of the weight of loss surviving family members feel. But the stones are also meant to help the volunteers who carry them gain a sense of service and sacrifice for others.
“So when you take these physical representations and you make them real for us, you help us have something we lost,” Haskell said. “It matters; it matters a lot.”
The stones, which must be too large to put in a pocket, are collected by surviving family members from a place that was special to their lost loved ones, said Maj. David Cote, the project’s organizer and founder.
Cote, a Waterville native, is an active-duty Marine Corps officer stationed at the Pentagon. He uses his leave time from the military to work on the project in Maine. It’s the only one of its kind in the U.S., he said.
He said that based on the stories surviving families and those who have participated in the project have told him, its impact is deep and important.
“The Summit Project means something different to different people for different reasons,” Cote said. “That is something very important that gives this project value.”
Also speaking Tuesday was state Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, who served as a Marine infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan and is a member of the Summit Project’s board of directors. He said hikes he’s participated in, including one with students from Edward Little High School in Auburn on Bradbury Mountain in Pownal, have similar outcomes.
Golden spoke of how the students were chatty, excited and having fun as they hiked to the summit, but after a summit ceremony in which each student had to tell a meaningful story about the service member they were honoring by carrying a stone, a change took place.
“This is what happens on every Summit Project hike,” Golden said. “With each story, the aura of solemness and respect grew deeper. On the the hike down, the students walked in near silence.”
Betsy Hutchins, a Leeds woman whose stepson, Andrew Hutchins, was killed while serving in the Army in Afghanistan, spoke of the importance the project held for surviving family members.
Hutchins’ stone is from Grand Lake Stream, a place he fished with his father and uncles growing up. In a video on the project’s website, Hutchins’ father tells a story of when the two of them saw an eagle at the stream and why he selected a stone from the place where his son caught his first salmon.
Betsy Hutchins said the project was meaningful to her because it’s become a family of Maine people with common ties of loss but also of hope.
“I knew this project was different,” she said. “I didn’t know what was missing, but it filled what I guess I was looking for in Andrew’s death. The Summit Project’s mission is a living memorial, making sure that Maine’s heroes are not forgotten.”
She told Cote the project was so much more than a kind of simple symbolism. “It’s become so much more, Dave, than you could ever imagine,” she said.
She said the project allows families of fallen service members to gather in a safe, peaceful and respectful environment where they can share memories. She said her stepson is buried at the state veterans’ cemetery in Augusta, where a white stone marks his grave.
She said her husband has said that white stone on his grave is beautiful but it hurts to look at.
“The stone that we got from the fishing hole is beautiful, as well,” she said. “My husband has said the white stone at the cemetery hurts, it just plain hurts. But the stone we have traveling around the world with the Summit Project gives us hope.”