The Burden of Sacrifice
It began one fateful day in 2012. Labor Day, to be exact.
It was happenstance, really. Dave Cote, then a U.S. Marine officer in Monterey, Calif., was invited last minute to hike Mt. Whitney by friends, a group of U.S. Navy SEALs. They had an open spot, and Cote embraced the chance to summit the 14,505 foot peak, the tallest in the contiguous United States.
Hitting the trailhead at midnight, they summited at dawn. It was there that Cote realized the SEALs had been carrying stones in their packs, a new rock for each fallen SEAL in the past year. They placed the stones in a secret crevice on the summit.
The image stuck with Cote. The memory kept resurfacing. About a year later, he had formed the basis of an idea to keep the memories of the fallen alive. He called it The Summit Project.
“At the end of the day I come back to this notion of remembrance,” said Cote, a 16-year veteran and current military reservist. “How are we going to remember the sacrifices that people made? I want to be able to say, ‘We’re not going to forget your son or daughter.’”
The Project’s mission, he said, is to honor Maine’s newest war casualties and the faithful spirit of all Mainers. In the Project, surviving families unearth and donate memorial stones that uniquely represent their loved ones. Project volunteers—hundreds, according to Cote—carry the engraved stones and the stories they represent on physical challenges across Maine and beyond. Following the journey, volunteers write post-event reflection letters to the surviving families.
Recent journeys have included a frigid March dip into Branch Lake, a 118-mile trek through the 100 Mile Wilderness, and countless other hikes, memorials, runs and events to carry the stones. At times, the Project partners with like-minded organizations as well as Gold Star families themselves.
For Cote, the mission runs deep. A Bangor native and a 1997 graduate of Bangor High School, he said early exposure to veterans left an impact.
“As a kid, I had the opportunity to greet troops with the troop greeters at Bangor International Airport,” he said. “It was a big influence. I realized at an early age that there’s a large population of veterans here in Maine. I wanted to support them—I think that’s part of being a Mainer.”
For volunteers, the experience is as palpable as the impact it has on families.
“During the challenge there were many times I asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I carrying a 35 pound medic bag with an 11 pound stone?,’ said one volunteer. “But I kept going because I realized that I would not — and could not — want it any other way. That’s what I’d want if I didn’t make it back.”
“The most humbling moment of the day for me was receiving hugs and thanks from [the service member’s] mother and father,” said another. “You could see in their eyes how much [it] meant to them and their family.”
Cote said there are three pillars to the Project’s vision. The community needs to take care of living veterans, he said; the wounded and ill need to be taken care of; and the fallen need to be remembered.
“These deaths are tragic and unplanned,” he said. “A lot of these people wanted to come back to this great state, buy a house, start a family. My motivation is to keep their memories alive by remembering them as people so their stories can continue to inspire and lead.”
“We’ve found that The Summit Project inspires people to serve, to act,” he said. “It changes lives.”