The Secret Memorial
Editor’s Note: I found this piece on Business Insider and thought it was more than appropriate to share with you. It may be a couple days after Memorial Day, but the message it carries will last a lifetime.
By Paul Szoldra
The most important memorial to fallen Marines is one that you probably will never see.
High above the mountains of northern Camp Pendleton, Marines of the 1st Marine Division who gave their lives in combat are remembered.
It is a simple memorial — a wooden cross, an engraved placard, and some rocks.
But to me, and to the Marines who have been there, it is a more fitting tribute than any that can be built of granite and stone.
In 2003, seven Marines who had recently returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom established the memorial. They made a brutal 3,000-foot hike — near vertical at some points — carrying shovels, stones, and a wooden cross.
Movement was slow for the seven. They took frequent breaks. The rocky, unstable surface did not give them good footing, but they didn’t complain. The weight of their packs was more than just rocks. Each rock had a name. And in their minds, a personal story. It symbolized a fallen Marine, a brother, who had given his life in combat. The pain of the weight on their shoulders, they would probably say, was nothing compared to the sacrifice that their fellow Marines had to make.
At the top of the peak, they dropped their heavy packs. They dug out a small site. In a hole close to the edge, they placed the cross. At the base of the cross, they put down their rocks. Their friends would never be forgotten.
As combat in Iraq and Afghanistan swelled in the following years, the memorial grew. Marines started bringing new rocks to the memorial. A squad from 1/4 brought up the largest rock at the site for PFC Juan G. Garza. It weighed over fifty pounds. Other Marines brought bottles of liquor, drinking with their fallen brothers and leaving the rest for them at the site. Between rocks, there were dog tags, Purple Hearts, battalion t-shirts, and photos.
Three of the original seven later died in combat. Their brothers probably carried their rock to the top of the mountain for them.
It wasn’t constructed by an architect or an artist. The memorial didn’t have tourists coming through it like Arlington Cemetery or the Vietnam Wall. It was a closed site, built and maintained by Marines. Hundreds of rocks had been carried there. Each week, Marines would carry lawn mowers up and groom it.
After deployments, battalions would go there to honor their fallen warriors.
I went there on Memorial Day 2007.
I had never been there before. Having come from a different unit in Hawaii, I had only seen the cross in the hills and wondered why it was there. The Marines that I worked with told me.
“It is a memorial for 1st Marines,” one said. “You should see it. Just make sure you bring a rock.”
I prepared my rock. In black marker, I wrote CPL STEVEN RINTAMAKI, LCPL FRANK SWEGER, and placed it in my daypack. The rock sat alongside a water-filled Camelback, camera, and my battalion t-shirt.
Like many Marines before me, I walked slowly along the firebreak. And I privately reflected on my comrades.
They were both killed in Iraq in 2004. I was told a suicide bomber killed Rintamaki in September. Sweger was killed in December, clearing rooms in the Battle of Fallujah. They were the first Marines I had personally known that lost their lives in combat.
Sweat poured down my face as I struggled to climb the hill. I clawed for small roots to help me get closer. At some points I had to crawl. It would be worth it, I told myself….
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