Fort Stewart soldiers and family members, including 108 Gold Star family members, paid last respects Friday night to the 468 eastern redbud trees that once lined Warriors Walk.
Limbs and logs from each tree were saved after the trees were replaced by crape myrtle trees in recent months. On Friday, members of the Fort Stewart community arrived to Cottrell Field to see a metal-framed container holding a huge pile of redbud logs.
A Marne Division patch was welded on the frame, which sat about 25 yards in front of the reviewing stands. The ceremony began with coordinator Jeff Fornshell telling the history of Warriors Walk, going back to 2003. The redbuds was selected for the living memorial to fallen soldiers because they bloom in April, which was when the first 3rd Infantry Division casualties were incurred in Iraq.
Though the trees were beautiful, they had trouble surviving in South Georgia. Trees were dying and having to be replaced. Earlier this year, 3rd ID and Stewart-Hunter Commander Maj. Gen. Mike Murray decided to replace the redbuds with crape myrtles, which can live 75-100 years.
Fornshell said Gold Star families, whose soldier died while serving, will be able to return to Warriors Walk and visit their loved one’s tree for generations.
“I talked with (Maj. Gen.) Murray this afternoon,” Task Force Marne Commander Brig. Gen. James Blackburn said. “On any given day, he’d rather be here than in Afghanistan. You understand that, right? But certainly today he’d rather be here (with you)… He passes his warmest regards.”
The ceremony included each commander and command sergeant major of every Marne Division unit that lost soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan taking some of a redbud to the woodpile.
When the last unit command team piled on their wood, garrison commander and command sergeant major for Stewart-Hunter, Col. Kevin Gregory and CSM Myron Lewis, took two more representative logs to the pile. Blackburn and CSM James Snyder then used torches to set the pile on fire.
Allenhurst Mayor Thomas Hines, who was attending the ceremony for his nephew Timmy Hines Jr., said watching the flames was very emotional.
“Timmy was such a young soldier,” Hines said. “He left behind a wife and a young one he never got to see. I don’t know how to say it, but it brought tears to my eyes.
“It was a very good ceremony. I was glad to be able to be a part of it and represent my brother, who couldn’t make it. (Timmy) was his only son. He went and served our nation knowing full well what could (happen).
“Seeing those flames I knew his memory will burn on. It’s an eternal flame.”
Stewart’s Survivor Outreach Services Program manager Cheryl Sowell said the trees had to be replaced because they were dying. She said the commander made a difficult decision. Murray, she said, first wrote a letter to each Gold Star family member then her staff called all of them.
Sowell said they kept the families “in the loop” during the process, posting pictures on Facebook. She said the reaction among family members has been positive.
Following the tree-burning, soldiers and families gathered on Cottrell again Saturday for the Wreaths for Warriors Walk ceremony. See the story in the Courier’s Wednesday issue.