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 1st Battalion, 4th Marines brought up the largest rock at the site for Private First Class 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 Veterans Memorial 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 honour 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 whom 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 who had 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.
I could feel I was getting closer — and saw the cross get larger. The pack straps seared into my shoulders. I took a sip from my Camelback. My feet continued to move. Finally, I reached the site.
The memorial was more heartbreaking than I could have imagined. There were hundreds of rocks, each with a name scrawled along the side. At the base of the cross there were bottles of liquor and beer. Around a half-full bottle of Maker’s Mark were countless dog tags. There were green unit t-shirts and notes left.
I took a knee and dropped my pack before the mass of rocks. For the moment, I was all alone, with the Pendleton base below me to my front, and the sea breeze of the Pacific to my back. I took out the rock and placed it among the others. I looked at their names and wished that I could have known them better — wished that I could have served alongside them in Iraq. I began to cry.
I wished I could have taken their place.
I let go of Rintamaki and Sweger that day. I didn’t forget about them. I let them go. I placed their rock down, mourned them, and told myself I would live for them.
Up above the clouds, I told them that I would be a good person. I would honour their sacrifice and never forget them. I told them that I would make them proud.
That journey to the top of a mountain above Camp Pendleton, and other trips to Arlington National Cemetery, are what keep me alive. For those who have lost a comrade in arms, every day is Memorial Day.
Memorial Day is for those who haven’t carried that burden. This day is for those who have not felt the impact of war. I have known heroes who have fallen on the field of battle. I have hauled my rock to the top of the mountain.
I only hope that others will learn about a fallen warrior and carry theirs.
Author’s note: This post was originally published May 28, 2012. While the original cross at the site was burned down in a wildfire, it was replaced. The site has also seen considerable controversy and legal battles.
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