PORTLAND, Maine — Last summer, Donald Buxbaum set out to find the perfect stone to memorialize his grandson Justin, who died at the age of 23 from an accidental shooting in 2008 while serving in the Army in Kuchamond, Afghanistan.
The stone would be engraved with Spc. Buxbaum’s initials, his rank, the year he was born and the year he died, to honor his service to this country.
In December, on a small beach on Chebeague Island where his family, including Justin, had spent many summer days, he saw it out of the corner of his eye. “It was perfect,” said Buxbaum, of a dark rock with a smooth, flat surface.
“The beauty of it is where I spotted that stone, it had been there the whole time,” said Buxbaum, 72, who has called the Casco Bay island home since 1946. “I just never noticed it before. It’s not something that just washed in on the tide. I thought that was a sign from somewhere.”
That 6-pound stone, and dozens of others inscribed with different initials and dates, will be carried up Owl Mountain in Baxter State Park on Saturday as part of The Summit Project, an effort to memorialize Maine military members who have died in the war on terror since Sept. 11, 2001.
The Summit Project is led by Maj. David Cote, a Waterville native who graduated from Bangor High School in 1997 and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now a budget analyst for the Marine Corps in Washington, D.C.
Cote was inspired by a Navy SEAL tradition of hiking up Mount Whitney in California carrying 10-pound rocks engraved with the names of SEALs who died in that year.
Cote said he wanted to find a way to honor those who had died in the line of duty. “I wanted to transcend a name on a wall or T-shirt,” he said. “It had to be a living memorial.”
When someone volunteers to carry a stone, during an official Summit Project event or on a personal journey, that person helps to carry the burden of the grieving family – at least symbolically, Cote said.
He said there are two rules for anyone who wants to carry a stone: Learn as much as possible about the fallen service member, and communicate the experience to his or her family through a letter or a blog post on the MaineMemorial.org website.
Forty stones are now on display in the Military Entrance Processing Station on Congress Street in Portland. Each one was selected by a family member of each fallen soldier and engraved at no cost to the family. The stones have come from farms, fields, creeks, lakes, fire pits and colleges and universities all over Maine.
Illuminated by warm track lighting, they sit on pine shelves built by Maj. Peter Perzel, commander of the Military Entrance Processing Station. On an adjacent wall is a glowing photo of Mount Katahdin.
Cote planned to climb Katahdin this weekend, but none of the trails will be open because of ice and snow, so the hikers will scale Owl Mountain, which offers views of Mount Katahdin.
On Friday morning, the stones will be delivered to the Portland Elks Club and handed off to members of the Patriot Riders, who will take them to Baxter State Park. On the way, the motorcycle convoy will stop in Gardiner, at Dysart’s Restaurant in Hermon and in Medway.
Thirty-six hikers, including volunteers, family members and a military recruiter, will carry the stones up Owl Mountain. Before that, they will study the life of each soldier and spend time with family members, Cote said. If possible, hikers will send photos and videos to family members throughout the hike.
Cote originally wanted to leave the stones on the peak of Mount Katahdin, but creating memorials in Baxter State Park is prohibited. “That turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” he said.
Betsy Hutchins of Leeds agreed. Her stepson, Cpl. Andrew Hutchins, died at the age of 20 from wounds he suffered in an insurgent attack at Combat Outpost Sabari, Afghanistan, in 2010.
“We miss our heroes every day, not just one day a year,” Hutchins said. “Our family feels (The Summit Project) is the missing piece many of our Gold Star families have been looking for.”
On Saturday, Hutchins’ older brother, Andrew Poulin, will carry his memorial stone up and down Owl. The 9-pound stone came from a spot on Grand Lake Stream where Hutchins caught his first salmon and later watched an eagle grab a fish.
Betsy Hutchins said the project allows families of fallen soldiers to build relationships, so they can share their experiences and memories.
Justin Buxbaum’s stone has already been on one journey.
Christopher Hopper of Portland told the family in a blog post on the Maine Memorial website in April that he carried the stone during the GORUCK Challenge, in which 26 men and women carried 30- to 40-pound backpacks for 12 hours throughout Portland and South Portland.
At one point, the group stopped and Hopper told Spc. Buxbaum’s story to the others.
“There were moments when I was tired and sore, and couldn’t help but smile because I had the weight of Justin on my shoulders,” Hopper wrote. “Thinking about him, as well as other Maine Heroes, helped me keep a positive attitude that I could relay to my fellow teammates.”
Donald Buxbaum said he is “mystified” that a stranger would choose to carry his grandson’s memorial. The gesture provides solace that Justin’s sacrifice, and the sacrifice of others, will never be forgotten.
“People need to really think about people serving this country now, have served it and will serve it the future, and how important that is,” Buxbaum said. “For these stones to be one avenue to get it out there is great.”
Cote is planning a hike up Cadillac Mountain near Bar Harbor this fall.
He has three long-term goals that can be summarized in numbers: Zero fallen Mainers should be forgotten; the 1.3 million people in Maine need to hear the soldiers’ stories; and 50 states need to start their own “tribute trek” projects.