There is a place at Fort Stewart that is hallowed ground because of the honored memories it elicits. Four hundred sixty-nine White Crape Myrtle trees line the ends of Cottrell Field, each planted as a living memorial to a Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield-based Soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. This place is known as Warriors Walk.
Families and Friends of those Fallen Soldiers, along with members of the community, gathered, December 14, to place wreaths at the base of each tree during Wreaths for Warriors Walk, an annual event at Fort Stewart since 2007.
"Those trees, each and every one of them, is intimately connected to the hearts and souls of the Family Members left behind," said Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Coffey, 3rd Infantry Division command sergeant major, in his remarks to Gold Star Family Members and guests. "Like you, I share a personal connection to one of those trees. The tree that my Family and I personally honor was planted for my good friend, Sgt. 1st Class David Salie."
Salie served nearly two decades of service and deployed in support of Operation Just Cause in Panama, and Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm before transferring to the 3rd ID with which he deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"Dave ferociously took care of his Soldiers; training, leading and protecting them to the best of his ability," Coffey said. "He certainly missed his Family and loved him from afar as best he could. He was a remarkable man, and sadly died on Valentine's Day in 2005."
Barbara Bilbrey, who came to honor her son Spc. Charles Bilbrey, placed a wreath at the base of his tree and knelt in silence. Afterwards, she placed wreaths at nearby trees honoring Sgt. William Howdeshell and Spc. Jaime Rodriguez, Jr., Bilbrey's team members who were also killed when a roadside bomb detonated near their vehicle in July 2015 in Iraq.
"I can't express how much it means to me to come here and visit my son's tree," Bilbrey said. "I visit Howdeshell's and Rodriguez' trees as well since their Families couldn't make it."
Community members in attendance placed wreaths at the trees of the fallen whose Families were unable to attend. Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Robert Halderman, his wife Betty, and her son Paul Lowe, from Savannah, attend Wreaths for Warriors Walk each year to do just that. Ever since Fort Stewart's inaugural event in 2007, the Family has maintained the tree of Staff Sgt. Vincent Summers, which they adopted when they discovered his Family could not attend due to distance.
Fort Stewart's Wreaths for Warriors Walk was inspired by Arlington National Cemetery's Wreaths across America when Lt. Col. (Ret.) Tony Justi saw a photo of it in 2006.
"I thought we could do something similar here, and I found other volunteers who wanted to remember our fallen Soldiers and their loved ones in a special way," said Justi, president of Wreaths for Warriors Walk. "The first event at Fort Stewart was in 2007, and there was such a good turn-out that it has continued every year since then."
Justi recognized the local volunteers including JRTC cadets, Soldiers and Family Members of Fort Stewart, and local restaurants for donating to the Gold Star Family reception.
The 469 White Flowering Crape Myrtle Trees lining Cottrell Field has made it a hallowed place in which ceremonies of all sorts are conducted, commands are changed, colors are cased, and Soldiers are farewelled and welcomed home from deployment.
"These trees serve as a symbol and reminder of the sanctity of life and the purity and innocence of our Nation's greatest treasure, the American Soldier," Coffey said. "These trees are a solemn reminder to us all - past, present and future - of the sacrifice of service to the country, and the willingness to go into harm's way so that others may be safe."