The 468 eastern redbud trees at Fort Stewart’s Warriors Walk are dying. According to Fort Stewart public affairs spokesman Kevin Larson, the trees intended to be living memorials begin dying shortly after they’re planted.
Larson said there are currently about 85 dead redbuds at Warriors Walk. The trees continually have to be replaced, he said, noting that tree No. 20, which memorializes 3rd Infantry Division Medal of Honor awardee Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, has been replaced six or seven times since it was first planted in April 2003. Larson said more than $200,000 has been spent to replace eastern redbuds since Warriors Walk began.
Maj. Gen. Mike Murray, 3rd ID and Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield commander, recently spoke candidly with the Courier about what’s killing the eastern redbuds and what he’s going to do about it.
Murray began by pointing to a small hole burrowed into the trunk of a dead redbud tree. Another dead tree nearby had several burrow holes. He said the holes are caused by a type of beetle that attacks the eastern redbud but added that beetles are not the only thing killing the trees. South Georgia’s clay soil and climate also are complicit in the trees’ demise.
“I go to sleep every night fearful that a family member from California, Oregon or even Georgia is going to visit Warriors Walk one day and find their soldier’s tree dead,” Murray said. “So we’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of effort to keep these trees alive.”
He said Warriors Walk was begun shortly after the Iraqi war began as a way to honor the sacrifice made by the soldiers serving there and in Afghanistan.
He said originally, Stewart leaders expected there’d be no more than 30 or 40 trees. No one ever expected the memorial to turn into 468 trees, he said.
“At that time, the eastern redbud was probably the best tree,” he said, noting fewer trees would be more manageable. “It’s a beautiful tree. It blossoms in April, which is when the war began… Within the last six months, I’ve had the guy who runs the horticulture department at the University of Georgia come down. Our goal was, ‘Tell us what we can do differently for these trees to keep them alive.’ They’re not cheap to replace.
“He took one look at these trees and pointed out the beetles I just showed you. He then told us there is nothing we can do to keep the trees alive. We’re about 100 miles too far south and 100 miles too far east for eastern redbuds, he said.”
Murray said the trees aren’t found in local nurseries, explaining they had to get them from a nursery in western South Carolina. He and his staff began working with UGA to come up with alternatives. The UGA experts recommend crape myrtle with white blossoms because it’s the hardiest of the myrtles, and it’s native to this area. The redbud tree only lives about 10-15 years while the crape myrtle can live over 50 years, the UGA officials said.
Although it blossoms in the summer rather than in April, he said the white blossoms of the crape myrtle could represent the purity of the sacrifice made by the soldiers remembered at Warriors Walk.
The goal is to begin replacing the redbuds by mid- to late July and have all the trees replaced before the end of the year, he said. Murray hopes to have all the redbuds replaced before the Wreaths for Warriors Walk ceremony in December,
“We moved slower than probably 100 people wanted us to move, but I wanted to get a personal letter out to all 468 families before making a final decision,” the Marne Division Commander said. “I’ve also written a personal letter to each of the CGs from 2003 to now to get their support.”
Murray said he’s heard back from most of the former commanding generals and about two-thirds of the families. He said one question asked is what is to be done with the living redbud trees. Some families have asked if they can have their soldier’s tree, he said. His response to them is “absolutely.” However, he noted there would be a short time window to allow the families to come to Stewart to invest their time, expense and effort to dig up the tree with enough of the “root ball” to allow for a successful transplant.
He said every primary next of kin will receive a plaque with a picture of the eastern redbuds in bloom at Warriors Walk as well as a small part of their soldier’s tree.
He said all the mementos hanging in or placed under each redbud tree as well as the granite marker, light and flag will be placed back with the crape myrtle.
After families have received a memento from their soldier’s tree or have gotten the tree itself, he said all the trees will be gathered in one place.
The installation will then hold a special tree-burning ceremony with all honor and respect due a memorial. Family members are welcome to attend, he said. Murray said the ashes from the redbud trees will be spread throughout Warriors Walk.
“The Army — through garrison funds — will pay to replace the trees,” he said, admitting he couldn’t say what the costs will be as a contract has not yet been awarded. “Cost is a factor, but when it comes down to it, cost isn’t my biggest concern. When families visit Warriors Walk 50 years now and can still see their soldier’s tree and know the sacrifice these soldiers made, the cost will be a small investment. It will be worth it.”
Murray said the contract to replace the trees will include a maintenance clause so the nursery will continually maintain the new trees, shaping them as they grow, so that they’ll form a canopy that stretches over the sidewalk between the rows of trees.