By Josh Deakin
Carrying the memory of fallen service members is the literal objective of The Summit Project, a nonprofit organization that honors those killed in post-9/11 conflicts. Volunteers physically carry tribute stones on hikes and journeys, learning about and memorializing our nation’s heroes.
“Surviving families unearth and donate stones that uniquely represent their loved ones,” explains Greg Johnson, the executive director of The Summit Project (TSP). “Volunteers discover the lives of our heroes and then carry these stones and their stories on treks throughout Maine and around the world. We literally share the burden shouldered by our fallen heroes and their families. Each participant must (1) learn about the fallen hero they choose to honor; (2) carry his/her tribute stone through a physical challenge, trek, or adventure; and (3) compose a post-event reflection letter addressed to his/her surviving family.”
The Summit Project has expanded across the world to all sorts of physical activities to honor the troops. “TSP stones and stories have been shared on Katahdin, Cadillac, Kilimanjaro, Everest, Denali and been carried through parades, marathons and marches all throughout Maine, across the country, and around the world,” said Johnson.
Johnson has been involved since the organization’s inaugural event on Memorial Day Weekend in 2014. Through the six years of the organization’s life, 80 heroes have been honored.
“The beauty of this organization is the way it brings together people from so many different walks of life within our community and unifies them under a single overarching purpose: to honor these incredible men and women, celebrating their lives and legacies in a way which lets each and every one of them live on through us and our actions,” he said.
For Johnson, the motivation behind The Summit Project is a personal endeavor. “I have lost a number of close friends, mentors and fellow Marines during my own 10 years of military service. I have had the privilege of working alongside some of the most incredible and selfless people this nation has had to offer. Whether or not those heroes are honored within this Maine-based organization, being able to support and surround myself with other people who understand the enormous WHY behind this sacred mission is one of the most healing and comforting feelings that I could ever experience,” said Johnson.
The Summit Project organizes two main events each year. The first one is held every Memorial Day at Baxter State Park and the second is held in late September at Acadia National Park. They also display the stones at various locations throughout the year to share the story of these fallen heroes.
“These tribute stones are on display at the Portland Military Entrance Processing Station and are available for sign out at any time throughout the year,” said Johnson. The stones may be signed out by other organizations such as the Scouts of America and various JROTC programs across the state. “We also support individual sign-out requests which is where the majority of the miles are put on these stones all over the world,” elaborated Johnson.
In addition to the display at the Portland Military Entrance Processing Station, there is the The Summit Project Honor Case. This is a traveling selection of tribute stones that go around the state to various not-for-profit venues and promote the educational side of the organization’s mission. “This case was built by a Gold Star Dad and resides in each location for about two months at a time, housing approximately 20 tribute stones which are rotated with each location visited,” said Johnson.
This traveling case helps promote the organization, as well as spread the stories of these fallen heroes to community members. “So many times we are contacted by members of the community who learn about our mission by visiting the Honor Case and will often request to join us for an upcoming hike later in the year,” said Johnson.
Johnson has had his fair share of moving experiences throughout his time with The Summit Project and he’s eager to pass on this tradition to the next generation. “Last year, I carried one of our hero’s stones during a ruck from the summit of Cadillac Mountain to the summit of Katahdin on a 170-mile trek between the two. This coming weekend, my son and I will be climbing Katahdin via Knife’s Edge for the very first time and he will be carrying the same hero’s stone that Dad did to its summit just one year ago,” Johnson said.
It’s important to carry these stories with us to the next generation to ensure the memories of these heroes stay alive and the reason for which they courageously gave their life for is known. “It’s hard to imagine, but many of the kids in high school right now weren’t even born yet when the attacks of 9/11 happened, yet they still feel the connection to these selfless men and women and they understand the significance of the sacrifice they had made for each one of us. These kids are moving mountains throughout their actions, accomplishing tasks that many adults often never seize the opportunity to do themselves, and there are no words to describe the immense pride I have just knowing this,” said Johnson.
The Summit Project works tirelessly to ensure the memories of these heroes live on each year. It’s an organization that has successfully dug in and grown roots right here in Maine.
“TSP builds and bolsters our communities by intersecting the lives of the fallen, their families and the faithful,” said Johnson. “TSP has also revealed the character of both Maine and America – a character of service, integrity and loyalty. As Americans, we look after one another, we remember one another, we make sacrifices for one another, we are faithful to each other and we carry each other to higher places, both literally and figuratively.”
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