Friday, May 27, 2016

The Summit Project honors the memories of Maine's fallen soldiers - By Michelle Libby

"The Summit Project (TSP), a nationally recognized, Maine based, non-profit service organization founded by active duty USMC Major David J. Cote in 2013, is a living memorial that has changed the way an entire state pays tribute to their post 9/11 fallen service members while also inspiring service, strengthening communities and changing lives.”
TSP is an organization created to honor heroes with ties to Maine. Through a web of volunteers, the stories of soldiers who have passed away will not be forgotten. The program is unique to Maine and is like nothing else out there. 

“I hope this memorial can help tell the stories of a generation of brave Maine veterans who did not return home but whose service and sacrifice must never be forgotten,” said Cote, who grew up in Bangor. “This is a story of our generation of Maine service members — a story that needs to be told. The Summit Project gives us an opportunity to say to our veterans you did your job. You served with honor. You made us proud. We are connected to you and continue to learn from your example. We are inspired by you because we took the time to learn about you. 

The fallen comrades were not all born in Maine, but all have ties to the state. They have all lost their lives since 9/11. Not all were killed in combat, though most were. It could have been a training accident, but they were all on active duty. 

Each veteran is remembered with a stone picked out by their family. Some stones are from a beach, some from family homesteads or camps, and others from a mountain where they may have had a memorable hike. They are all from a place of significance for the hero and their family. The stones are engraved with the veteran’s initials or name, rank, year of birth, year of passing and branch of service. The stones range in size from a pound up to 30 pounds. The average stone is about five to eight pounds. There are 77 engraved stones for service members and 14 spirit stones engraved with Courage, Date, Country, Teamwork, Bayonet, Family, Service, Strength, Community, Family, Endurance, Sacrifice, and Duty.

Windham resident Russ Shoberg has been a volunteer with the program for a year and a half. Though Shoberg has never been in the military, he has a calling to be a part of tributes like this, getting his first taste of honoring the military when he ran in Run for the Fallen events starting in 2012. “In 2014 I met a charismatic Marine who was carrying a large stone,” he said. “I asked to carry a stone in the Maine Marathon.” He did. “And that’s how I fell into the deep end with TSP. Everyone I’ve met within TSP has a selfless and genuine character. While we honor the heroes and their families, those same families give back to carriers and participants in equal measures.” 

The stones are kept at Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Portland in an honor room. “It’s almost chapel like,” said Shoberg. There is also an honor display case that travels around the state to display memorial stones and to share the mission of TSP. 

The stones could also be requested by anyone who wants to honor Maine veterans. Getting involved in easy. Volunteers, anyone from a Scout group to a book group or an individual, just need to fill out and submit a form telling TSP where they would like to take the stone. It could be anything from a backpacking trip in Africa or an adventure on the Appalachian Trail in Maine. “But it doesn’t have to be an arduous thing,” said Shoberg. 

“The primary criteria are to honor the veteran, and that the event is not self-serving. It must be a selfless way to honor them,” said Shoberg. There are three simple rules for the volunteer to follow. 1. Learn as much about the hero as they can. 2. Launch the event and complete the hike, marathon or event that was approved. 3. The volunteer must write a letter to the family of the service member accounting what he/she learned about the family member and what the volunteer will take from the experience of carrying the stone. “The goal is to keep their story and legacy alive,” said Shoberg, who has run in two marathons sharing the story of his stone and the man it represents. “Once you’ve carried and held one, an emotional bond is formed,” he added. He has also met several of the family members of the stones he’s carried, and that deepens the bond. 

Last October Shoberg ran in the Marine Corps Marathon with two veterans, all of them carrying stones. Every mile they stopped to tell the story of their stones to someone watching the event. “We started with ‘Today I carry the stone and story of this Marine hero, and went from there. “We let them hold it for a while too. It’s very tactile response, especially for veterans. They go someplace in their hearts,” Shoberg said, adding that “Running with the stones can sometimes be more emotionally demanding than just the running part.” 

Cote got the idea for TSP after he was invited on a SEAL hike to climb Mount Whitney, the tallest summit in the contiguous United States. Here the SEALS left 10 pound stones engraved for each SEAL brother they lost. Cote was moved by the hike that he wanted to do something similar in his home state. 

“Veterans comprise nearly 15 percent of our state’s population ranking among the very highest veteran populations of any state in America. Put another way, nearly 1 in 7 Maine adults is a veteran. Maine’s patriotism and commitment to service in our Armed Forces is nothing short of extraordinary. We must match with equal devotion, our commitment to them,” he said.

Cote is a reserve Marine Corps Major and an Annapolis graduate. He has known service and has seen the sacrifice. 

Every year TSP sponsors two major hikes, one at Baxter State Park and the other at Acadia National Park. At Acadia the climbers in four groups of 20 hike four different routes up Cadillac Mountain. At the top they gather and present the stories of the stones. At the bottom they gather in a large circle holding the stones, and present them back to the families to conclude the event. 

In addition to preserving the memory of the fallen heroes, TSP also offers assistance to Gold Star Families, those who have lost a service member in combat, to allow them to spend Memorial Day weekend in Baxter. They also provide assistance to Gold Star families in need, and many TSP families participate as volunteers in Wreaths Across America.“Through the sincerity of the people who are part of this you become part of the TSP family. They don’t care if you’re a vet, what you do for a living or even if you’re born in Maine. We all want to make sure the families are supported and that their heroes are remembered,” Shoberg said. “Egos get checked at the door. It’s not about position, it’s about what we are doing together.” “People really, really care and want to spread the story to keep the memories alive,” said Shoberg. 

 For more information on The Summit Project or to get involved, visit, visit them on Facebook or Twitter @MaineMemorial.

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