My recent travels took me back to Fort Stewart, Georgia, home of the “dog-faced Soldiers” of the Third Infantry Divsion (“Rock of the Marne”). I was a member of the division during its first rotation for Major Combat Operations in Iraq beginning in March 2003. The division recently returned from its second rotation to Iraq. I’m currently stationed in Kansas, but my duties took me back to Fort Stewart for 10 days earlier this month. I arrived at the post after sunset and my first stop after checking in at the guest quarters was Warriors Walk. Warriors Walk consists of paved parallel pathways flanking both sides of Cottrell Parade Field. Along the twin paths, an Eastern Redbud tree memorializes each of the division’s Soldiers who died in the Global War on Terrorism. A stone marker at the foot of each tree bears the Soldier’s name and a small spotlight illuminates each tree at night. Family and friends have also placed flags and personal items at the foot of each tree.
I went to Warriors Walk to visit the memorials of those whose names are ever with me: fallen members of the division to whom I feel personally connected. I attended some of their memorial ceremonies. I prayed for some of them in casualty treatment areas. I was present when some of them were recovered from the battlefield. I walked the ground where several of them died and visited Soldiers who survived the attack. I was close enough to see the flash and feel the over-pressure from explosions that killed some of them.
When I returned to Warriors Walk, I was prepared for the emotions of revisiting the memorial, but I was not prepared to see so many trees.
I approached the field on foot from the southeast. In the dark, it tooks some time to search out the names I knew. I wondered why I hadn’t reached the names I was searching for when it hit me: I was passing a large number of trees dedicated to those more recently deceased. When I reached the first of the memorials to Soldiers from my unit, I finally looked up and looked north. An even larger mass of lights filled the sky at the opposite end of the parade field. When it finally dawned on me just how many young men and women were now remembered here, I was overwhelmed. I shook. I fought for breath. I wept.
When I left Fort Stewart in 2004, a single row of trees had been planted on both sides of the pathway that runs along the southern edge of the parade field. Now, trees line southern pathway from end to end, but that’s just a small fraction of the total. The northern pathway has also been newly planted with Redbuds – four across instead of two – and the planting of trees along a third pathway has begun. I don’t know how many trees now stand along Warriors Walk, but the effect at night, with lights shining up through young limbs into the darkened sky, is dramatic.
I understand that there is a reason for such a large number. The division was in theater for a full year this time, and the division headquarters controlled a much larger number of troops in the Baghdad area. Many of the Soldiers (and Marines?) memorialized here belonged to the division only during this operation; they did not wear the square patch of the Marne division on their shoulders. A number of the memorials belong to Soldiers of the 48th Brigade of the Georgia National Guard. Understanding why the number of trees is so large, however, did not dampen the emotional impact of seeing those trees that night.
So many trees. What a debt we owe to those remembered here.