By Pat Donahue, Special to the News.
Under the arch formed from the limbs of crape myrtles, a wreath adorned each marker bearing the name of a fallen soldier on Warriors Walk.
More than 20 families attended Saturday’s 16th annual Wreaths for Warriors Walk ceremony at Fort Stewart’s Cottrell Field.
Families came from as far as Missouri and Indiana, said Tony Justi, president and co-founder of Wreaths for Warriors Walk. Justi said the ceremony is important to make sure the sacrifices of the 469 soldiers memorialized at Warriors Walk are not forgotten.
“It’s important for the soldiers stationed here on active duty that the soldiers will be remembered,” he said.
Each tree and marker represents a soldier from the 3rd Infantry Division and its attached units killed during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, dating back to the division’s invasion of Iraq in April 2003.
The history of the 3rd Infantry Division and its accolades over 105 years are brought up and discussed frequently, said Maj. Gen. Charles Costanza, the division commander.
“We talk about the 61 Medal of Honor winners. But we don’t talk about how the history was earned,” he said. “We are here today to remember the recent part of that division history, the 469 soldiers killed fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 20 years.”
The 469 markers and trees honor soldiers from more than 160 different units from across the country, Maj. Gen. Costanza pointed out.
The crape myrtles bloom each spring, coincidentally, Maj Gen. Costanza noted, around Memorial Day. As the trees grow and their limbs intertwine, that also will symbolize for what the soldiers fought and died.
Maj. Gen. Costanza also urged the audience to read the name on each plaque, look at the unit guidon at each tree and pay close attention to what is left at the base of each tree by family members and friends.
“It will give you a sense of who that soldier was and what they represent, as they gave everything for this nation, their fellow soldiers, their families and for us,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Costanza also recited a quote from President Ronald Reagan on soldiers who are killed.
“When soldiers dies, they give up two lives — the ones they were living and the one they could have lived,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to the annual reception for Gold Star families for two years, but that tradition resumed with this year’s ceremony.
“This year, we were able to bring it back and have the family members see each other,” Justi said. “We really missed it the last couple of years, and I know the family members missed it.”