An overcast day with an occasional cool breeze was fitting weather for the fifth annual Wreaths for Warriors Walk ceremony Saturday at Fort Stewart’s Quick Track and Cottrell Field.
Hundreds of family members and friends of fallen 3rd Infantry Division soldiers came from around the country to participate in the somber event by laying a Christmas wreath at the foot of each of the 439 Eastern Red Bud trees that serve as a memorial to the Fort Stewart community’s fallen heroes.
"This is a labor of love for our community," explained Col. Roger Cloutier, 3rd ID deputy commander for maneuvers and guest speaker for the event. "This is our place to honor those who gave all. Our nation has stood in awe as our ‘Dog Face Soldiers’ deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — it’s what makes the 3rd ID special."
Cloutier’s remarks followed a special moment of silence in memory of the fallen, then the national anthem, an invocation and a poem by Reece Bishop called "Another Tree Planted."
"This is my first time speaking at (Wreaths for Warriors Walk), but I’ve participated in the ceremony twice before," Cloutier later said. "I think it’s a great opportunity to just remember our fallen soldiers and honor the sacrifices made by their families."
The former commander of the 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, Cloutier has been with the 3rd ID since 2004. He said he has seven soldiers remembered on Warriors Walk from his former battalion and 107 from his former brigade.
Opposite of Quick Track, the O’Neill family stood silently around the Red Bud tree honoring their son, Spc. Jonathan C. O’Neill, who was killed in Iraq on June 15, 2009.
They traveled from Watertown, Tenn., to take part in the annual ceremony.
"We’ve come here every year," explained Robert O’Neill, whose eyes were welled up with tears after he laid the Christmas wreath at his son’s memorial, making it difficult for him to speak. "We have a memorial garden for our son at home, but (Warriors Walk) is special to us."
"It’s almost like this is his resting place," Robert’s wife, Jackie, interjected. "Coming here has become a family tradition at Christmas."
Not all those participating in the wreath ceremony were family members or friends of any particular fallen soldier. Nearly 175 bikers responded to an invitation by the U.S. Military Vets Motorcycle Club to participate in the ceremony. Their bikes were parked in a line that stretched from Gulick Avenue to Bundy Street.
Those trees with no friends or family members to place a wreath on them were attended to by the various bikers and other members of the community, including representatives of the GeoVista Credit Union.
Chief Executive Officer Elaine Tuten and Chief Financial Officer Vanessa McGarry, along with Janet Starr, a credit union consultant, placed a wreath at the memorial for Cpl. Jeremiah W. Robinson before moving on to another unattended tree. Starr said she had left her home in Bryson City, N.C., at 3 a.m. in order to take part in the noon event.
Wounded warrior Jason Letterman gathered with his family around the memorial for Spc. Kyle P. Norris. Letterman, who lost both legs from an improvised explosive device in Iraq, was visibly moved as he stared at the Christmas wreath and memorial to his soldier.
"He was my driver," Letterman said as he sighed heavily. "Three of us were injured, but Norris was killed."
Letterman’s family stepped back from him for a moment to allow him to reflect and remember his soldier and friend. Like many others attending the somber event, he needed to be
alone with his thoughts and