FORT STEWART, Ga. (AP) — In the decade since this Army post in southeast Georgia began planting trees to honor each of its soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the living memorial known as Warriors Walk has become hallowed ground where friends and families remember the fallen and visiting dignitaries, including a president, come to pay respects.
Unfortunately, the 468 eastern redbud trees planted in memory of the dead weren’t lasting long. As years passed, the balmy climate of coastal Georgia left the trees vulnerable to disease and infestation by bugs. With 40 or more of the redbuds dying and requiring replacements each year, Fort Stewart commanders finally decided all of them needed to be removed and swapped with a hardier tree species.
“It was our commitment to the families,” said Brig. Gen. James Blackburn, a deputy commander of Fort Stewart’s 3rd Infantry Division. “If it’s a living memorial, by God, it ought to be living.”
Four months of work wrapped up Dec. 1, and now dozens of families of soldiers who died serving in the 3rd Infantry are coming to Fort Stewart to see Warriors Walk’s fresh start. During a ceremony Friday night, the old eastern redbud trees will be burned so their ashes can be scattered around the white crape myrtles taking their place. Families and volunteers will return Saturday to place holiday wreathes at each tree.
“They tried to do everything they could to get people through this,” said Rhonda Kirkpatrick of Upland, Indiana, whose 20-year-old son had deployed from Fort Stewart to Iraq when he was killed by a roadside bomb in April 2007. “It’s hard to express how appreciative you are of Warriors Walk. It’s a beautiful place.”
The tree honoring Kirkpatrick’s son, Pfc. David A. Kirkpatrick, was the 327th planted at Warriors Walk. Kirkpatrick said she agrees all of the trees needed replacing. The last time her family made the 820-mile trip from Indiana to visit Warriors Walk, she said, they found her son’s tree was dead.
The first trees were planted at Warriors Walk in April 2003, barely a month after 3rd Infantry troops from Fort Stewart helped lead the invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. The latest ones, No. 467 and 468, were dedicated last January. Lining each side of paved walkways flanking Fort Stewart’s parade grounds, the long rows of trees exhibit the cost of the wars in a way that’s staggering in scale yet also intensely personal.
At the base of each tree is a granite stone engraved with a soldier’s name. Most are also decorated with personal mementos left by friends and family — toy cars, angel figurines, wind chimes, beer mugs and laminated photos. Vice President Dick Cheney toured Warriors Walk when he visited Fort Stewart in 2006. So did President Barack Obama during a 2012 trip.
Over the summer, Fort Stewart commanders and volunteers spread the word about changes coming to Warriors Walk through letters to families of the fallen and on social media sites. A few families accepted offers to come take their soldiers’ redbud trees so they could replant them at home.
Meanwhile, contractors tasked with remaking the living memorial took pains to do the job with respect, said Ben Seacrist, who managed the project for the federal Department of Public Works. Because the entire site needed to be stripped bare to the dirt, workers took careful measurements of where the old trees were placed to ensure new ones went in precisely the same spot.
Mementos at the base of soldiers’ trees were photographed in place before being boxed for storage, then got put back after the new trees were planted.
“There were several discussions before we even got started about the nature of the project and the emotional portion, being honorable,” Seacrist said. “The contractor even went as far as not using a chain saw. He cut every tree by hand.”
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