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Feeling the weight: Hikers carry tribute stones for Maine heroes to Baxter mountaintop

Posted May 26, 2014, at 7:28 a.m.
Last modified May 26, 2014, at 4:25 p.m.

Atop the mountain, 26-year-old Dylan Harris set down his heavy backpack, unzipped it, and removed a large gray stone. Etched on its rough surface:

D. J. H.

SPC USA

1983-2006.

The stone represented his brother.

Army Spc. Dustin James Harris — recipient of the Army Achievement Medal, Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart — died at age 21 on April 6, 2006, while serving in Iraq. This sacrifice placed him among the ranks of Maine’s many fallen heroes. But to his younger brother Dylan, he had always been a hero.

Dylan was one of the 35 volunteers who hiked in Baxter State Park on Memorial Day weekend to honor service members who died in the line of duty. The memorial event was organized by The Summit Project, a new nonprofit organization with the mission to create a “living memorial” that pays tribute to the fallen service members from Maine who’ve died in the line of duty since Sept. 11, 2001.

While some of the hikers were family members of the fallen, many of the hikers had never met the hero whose stone they carried up the 3,700-foot mountain called The Owl. Nevertheless, they were there to pay tribute.

“I never knew him,” said Noah Hudson, 26, of Ocean Park, as he carried the tribute stone of Army National Guard Spc. Jeremiah J. Holmes of North Berwick. “But I feel like I did.”

Before carrying a tribute stone up a mountain, each hiker participating in The Summit Project is expected to learn about the person behind the initials etched in stone. They’re also tasked with writing a letter to the fallen hero’s family about the experience.

“It’s unlike anything else in America,” said Maj. David Cote, The Summit Project founder. “We collect stones, but we also collect stories of the fallen.”

An active-duty Marine Corps officer and Iraq war veteran, Cote grew up in Bangor. A year ago, he founded The Summit Project, and since then, he’s been traveling throughout the state meeting families and documenting stories of people who gave their lives while serving in recent wars. To date, he’s collected 60 stories, which are posted on The Summit Project website at www.mainememorial.org, and for each hero, there is a tribute stone.

On May 23, the tribute stones were transferred from The Summit Project office in Portland to Millinocket by The Patriot Riders. The convoy of 75 motorcycles were cheered on as they passed through towns on their way north.

“This project has a secret,” Cote said. “And the secret of The Summit Project is that we are building a community.”

“We grieve every day,” said Nancy Lee Kelley, mother of Army Capt. Christopher S. Cash, who was killed in 2004 when his vehicle came under attack in Baqubah, Iraq. “But when we do things like this, we can laugh and tell stories and escape for a little bit.”

“And what a beautiful place to escape,” she added, motioning to the view of Katahdin from the shores of Millinocket Lake. It was there, at Twin Pine Camps, where hikers and families of the fallen stayed for the Memorial Day weekend hike and celebration.

Nancy and her husband Bob selected their son’s tribute stone from Veterans Monument Park in Old Orchard Beach, where they planted a tree in his memory. At 16 pounds, it was the heaviest of tribute stones, and it was carried to the top of The Owl by the group’s oldest hiker — family friend George Pulkkinen, 75, of Scarborough.

“I picked the stone up years ago never thinking that someone would laugh about it, talk about it or much less carry it up a mountain,” Nancy said.

“We talk about having the lightest load on your trek, getting efficient and buying a light backpack,” Cote said. “But no. What if we deliberately put weight in there as an act of solidarity that helps us understand and appreciate the burden that was shouldered by these service members, but also their families.”

Atop The Owl, hikers converged to set down their stones and share a few words about the men and women for whom they’d struggled up the mountain. Katahdin, its top white with snow, loomed to the east, beyond the drastic dip of the Witherle Ravine. The vast, green landscape, partially masked by shifting white clouds, was breathtaking.

“It was more poignant up there than I anticipated,” said Tom Zimmerman, who hiked the mountain with his wife Jane in honor of their son, Marine 1st Lt. James Zimmerman, who died in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan. “Honestly, it brought tears to my eyes. It was really significant. It surprised me that it was that powerful.”

“I was just taking in the moment,” said Dylan Harris, “kind of keeping to myself and remembering different memories of me and my brother.”

He placed his brother’s stone on the bedrock among the other stones of all shapes, colors and sizes. And when he came his time to speak, he simply said, “I carry the stone in honor of my brother, Spc. Dustin J. Harris. Carrying it made me think back to the days when we’d play out in the potato fields, where we found that stone.”

Their grandfather used to run a small potato farm, and in those fields, the brothers used to have fun snowmobiling, bombing around in old pick-up trucks, unearthing potatoes and picking apples.

After descending the mountain, Dylan was greeted by his father, Scott Harris, who volunteers with Wreaths Across America, an organization that honors veterans by placing wreaths on their graves across the country.

“My dad has his truck and I have my body,” said Dylan, who works as a middle school physical education teacher. “We give what we can to honor my brother’s memory.”

His mother, Lorna, couldn’t make the hiking event because she was in Washington, D.C., for an event with the American Gold Star Mothers, an organization of mothers who have lost a son or daughter in the service.

“It was a very good hike,” Dylan said, sitting by the campfire. “My shoulders are hurting a little bit now, but I guess that just goes along with Dustin always beating me up when we were growing up. He’s still beating me up today, I guess.”

The Summit Project is planning its second group hike for Sept. 27, with the prospective destination of Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park. To learn more, visit mainememorial.org.

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