Three additional trees were planted along Warriors Walk in Fort Stewart Georgia, bringing to 411 the number of Eastern redbud trees in the memorial honoring fallen 3rd Infantry Division soldiers who died in Iraq.
Family members and fellow 3rd Infantry Division soldiers gathered for the somber ceremony as Army Command Sgt. Maj. McArthur Dixon, the rear detachment command sergeant major, called out the fallen soldiers’ names. Army Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, the 3rd Infantry Division commander, remembered the soldiers as heroes who sacrificed for the country.
Army Pvt. Kyle P. Norris, 22, died May 23 after an improvised explosive device hit his vehicle as it patrolled in Balad. Two of the soldiers died in Iraq of noncombat injuries: 25-year-old Army Pvt. Ronald Harrison died April 22 at Forward Operating Base Falcon, and Army Spc. Mary J. Jaenichen, 20, on May 9 in Iskandariyah.
The simple tree-planting ceremony took place along Cottrell Field, a parade ground that was the site of celebration, when 3rd Infantry Division soldiers returned from their third deployment to Iraq.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrapped up their visit strolling through the grove alongside Lynch. They walked slowly through the grounds, pausing frequently to reflect on the small granite markers at each tree bearing a soldier’s name. U.S. and unit flags at the base of each tree blew in the wind, and wind chimes dangling from many of the branches sent soft tinkling sounds through the grounds.
Mementos left at each tree told the personal stories of the soldiers honored. Two miniature motorcycles and a golf ball rested under the tree for Army Staff Sgt. William J. Beardsley, who died in February 2007 when an IED detonated near his vehicle in Diwaniyah.
Two wind chimes, a pinwheel and a flower arrangement graced the tree honoring Army Spc. Adam Harting, a 21-year-old who died in Samarra in July 2005.
A plaque engraved with a photo of Army Sgt. Nathan Bouchard carried a message of inspiration: “Greater love hath no man than that a man lay down his life for his friends. RECON.” Bouchard was among four 3rd Infantry Division soldiers killed Aug. 18, 2005, when an IED detonated near their Humvee following a mine-assessing mission in Samarra.
Other tokens rested at the bases of other trees: a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of beer, a religious plaque and a crystal angel among them. Each night, a miniature spotlight casts a glow on each tree.
After walking through Warriors Walk, Mullen stopped to reflect, crossing his arms across his chest as he looked down the long rows that began with 34 trees planted during the 2003 dedication ceremony.
Garrison Commander Army Col. Todd Buchs said it’s fitting that the division’s heroes are honored in a way that will allow future generations to read their names and know of the sacrifices they made.
When the trees bloom each April, it’s a tribute to the achievements the brigade made - and losses it suffered — in April 2003 when it led the drive into Baghdad during its first deployment to Iraq, he said.
Army 1st Lt. Oscar Blasingame, whose legal services office sits directly across the street from Warriors Walk, said he visits it frequently and attends the tree-planting ceremonies “to remind myself of why I’m here.”
Blasingame is an Army reserve soldier from Florida who volunteered to serve with the 3rd Infantry Division because of his strong family ties to the storied unit. Sitting on his desk is a photo of his grandfather and the victory medal he earned serving with the division in Marne, France, during World War I when it earned the motto, “Rock of the Marne.”
Warriors Walk, he said, provides a reminder of the sacrifices 3rd Division soldiers continue to make, he said.
Army Pvt. Jonathan Goad, who joined the division last month, visited Warriors Walk with a friend just back from Iraq during his first days at Fort Stewart. “He lost a couple of friends there, so it was a very emotional day,” said Goad, who expects to deploy with his new unit late next year.
As he walked among the trees, Goad said, he felt a sense of brotherhood with the fallen soldiers, knowing that he is taking up the cause they fought and died for. “I felt a sense of pride and a sense of unity with them,” he said.
Goad said he recognizes that he, too, will go into harm’s way serving with the division. But after feeling the terrorist threat personally at a young age, he said, he feels it’s his duty.
A last-minute schedule change saved Goad’s mother from being at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., when it was bombed in April 2005. Goad remembers his sixth-grade class music trip into Oklahoma City getting disrupted as rescue workers rushed to the scene to search for survivors.
But the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks were the clincher, convincing Goad to join the military.
“I pretty much felt the call to serve,” he said. “I’ve always felt that we should have a sense of pride and a willingness to make this country a better place and a safer place.”
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, left, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walks along Warriors Walk during his visit to Fort Stewart, Ga., June 11, 2008. U.S. Army photo by Sharon T. Bass