The Free Press
Volunteers marched 8 miles through the streets of Portland last week, carrying stones bearing the names of fallen soldiers from Maine, before securing them in a wooden case in the Abromson center.
The march, and subsequent ceremony were part of The Summit Project, a national organization that honors Maine’s fallen soldiers by engraving their names on family-picked stones, and hiking with them all across the state. Along the way, the hikers learn the stories and experiences of the dead men and women they’re honoring and share them with others, in hopes that people will not forget the price they paid.
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 67 Mainers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan while serving a branch of the United States military. According to Ted Coffin, a civilian volunteer at the Summit Project, 47 stones have been donated by affected family members, some of which have travelled as far as the peaks of Everest, Kilimanjaro and the more close to home Katahdin.
“What means the most to the hikers is the connection to the stone and furthermore to the soldiers and families attached to them. It’s a bond,” said Coffin. “After two months at USM, the stones will move on and continue their journey.”
Coffin said that there are more stones held at the military entrance processing station (MEPS) in Portland, that anyone can check out and go on tribute hikes with, just as long as the volunteers follow three rules. To participate in the Summit Project, one must learn about the fallen, endure some kind of physical challenge with the stone, and write a letter of reflection to the affected family.
“It brings it full circle and lets the families know that we are getting the word out and their loved one didn’t die in vain,” said Coffin. “The ultimate goal is to make Maine a smaller state, with everyone knowing each others stories.”
Rebecca Tannous, USM’s student body vice president, walked in tribute carrying one of the 12 “spirit stones,” stones that aren’t attached to a specific soldier, but rather a theme that they embody. The words honor, courage, commitment and endurance emblazoned some of the stones. Tannous carried a spirit stone that read “duty.”
“We’re not just carrying stones; we’re carrying memories,” said Tannous. “When looking into what duty means, I discovered that it’s about more than just accepting responsibility, but it’s also about seeking opportunities to improve oneself.”
15 others carried stones symbolizing specific deceased soldiers and marched through the Portland skywalk for the last leg of their journey. They were greeted by a large audience made up of veterans, active duty soldiers, families of the fallen and USM students. In attendance were President David Flanagan, organizer Gregory Johnson and Portland police chief Michael Sauschuck, all of whom spoke to the crowd, thanking the tribute hikers and honoring military servicemen both living and dead.
“USM will take the job of guarding the memories of our fallen soliders very seriously,” said Flanagan.
“I’m proud to be here as an American, as a Mainer, as a former Marine and as a USM graduate,” said Sauschuck. “These people paid the ultimate price on behalf of all of us.”
One of these brave souls was Andrew Hutchins from South Portland, who died four years ago in Afghanistan at the age of 20. According to his father, Jeff Hutchins, he was stationed 10 miles from the Pakistani border and died after being caught in a firefight and shot by the enemy. Due to the laws of engagement, Hutchins was not allowed to fire back, an order that his father believes costed him his life. Hutchins said that his biggest fear, is that his son’s story and sacrifice will be forgotten. But now he feels less lonely, knowing Andrew’s stone, which has travelled over 2,000 miles, is impacting people in a meaningful way.
“He never got to meet his daughter Alyssa, but he did hear his baby’s heartbeat over the phone,” said Hutchins. “All of the families here have a story to share. It’s tough and there will be tears, but if a few people can hear it, it means a lot.”
It’s this combination of physical toil and active remembrance of the lives and deaths of Maine’s soldiers, that inspired David Cote, an active duty Marine, native Mainer and current employee at the Pentagon, to make the Summit Project a reality. Cote got the idea three years ago when hiking Mt. Whitney in California with some Navy Seals.
“I wanted to take the idea of a living memorial and make it a tradition,” said Cote. “Mainers are veterans. We need to match their service with equal measure of passion and devotion.”
Cote said that 1 in 7 Mainers are veterans and it’s important to keep their memories and legacy alive. Cote believes that honoring veterans both dead and alive, can have a positive impact on anybodies psyche.
“These heroes who left Maine can continue to inspire us today,” said Cote. “They push us to make better decisions, be more generous, and put others needs before your own.”
Cote spoke last to the audience and ended with a quote from the speech former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln gave on the freshly bloodied battlefields of Gettysburg.
“It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”