Soldierstone (CDT Day 48)

Soldierstone (CDT Day 48)

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The CDT cutting through a sub-alpine meadow in the foreground, the trees near the horizon where Soldierstone is hidden, and the Rocky Mountains, tall and beautiful in the background.

The tall meadow grasses brushed against my bare legs as I walked slowly, reverently, towards the granite blocks of Soldierstone. Soldierstone was described in Yogi’s Continental Divide Trail Guide as “the most unique, peaceful war memorial on the planet,” and the two veterans that were leaving the site when I arrived had both found the monument to be profoundly moving. I was thinking about those veterans when I stumbled onto the first of many Quote Stones:

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“… AND YOU WILL HEAR THE WAILING OF THE WOUNDED AND THE WHISPER OF DEATH.” Operation Brotherhood 1953. Philippine Civic Action Group-Vietnam (PHILCAGV) 1964-1970

… and as I read the inscription I did. I heard the wailing of the wounded in the howling of the wind and the whisper of death in the rustling of grasses in the meadow. It was ceaseless, it was inescapable, and it took my breath away. “Is this part of the tinnitus ringing in the ears of the combat vets I know?” I wondered.

I took a step back, letting my eyes drift away from the stone. The Rocky Mountains loomed, spectacular in the distance, and the vibrant green meadow surrounding me was peaceful and serene despite the wind. Nestled in among the meadows’ bright yellow dandelions I found another Quote Stone. This one was inscribed with a Vietnamese poem and the only English on the stone was, “FLOWERS FROM HELL.”

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This Vietnamese poem on this Quote Stone was written by Nguyen Chi Thien while interred in a N. Vietnamese reeducation camp. I would later learn the translation: “When dreams and wishes fail and don’t come true, they turn to stones and just sit there, stock-still. They weigh so heavy on my brain, my heart- I want to shrug them off but often can’t.”

Quote Stones were scattered like leaves around the central Soldierstone monument. Some were in English, many were not. I slowly walked through the quote stones as I circled closer to the monument in the center. I’d stopped at many monuments and memorials on my thru-hike, and would stop at many more, but this one was different. It wasn’t conveying names, numbers, and honors from a dispassionate distance… I wasn’t seeing this memorial, I was feeling it.

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“And how can men die better/ Than facing fearful odds/ For the ashes of their Fathers/ And the temples of their Gods?”

Soldierstone felt like it was made for soldiers, by soldiers. There was so much of it that I didn’t understand, that was going way, way over my head. I was glad that I was alone at Soldierstone… I would have felt like I was intruding if other veterans like H., who served in Vietnam, and her son, who served in Afghanistan, were still there. Hidden away from the world, Soldierstone felt like a very private place.

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Dead trees standing alongside the central Soldierstone, with a mix of forest, some live, some dead, fading into the backdrop of the mountains.

I walked through the Quote Stones as I would walk through a graveyard, slowly, reverently, and with respect. Amidst a stand of towering trees, now dead, was an ~10 foot tall stone monument topped with a 40 mm mortar, and surrounded by a three-sided stone wall (designed to represent an abandoned Southeast Asia outpost). This was the heart of Soldierstone. Whether it was the altitude (11,743 ft), the poetry, or the place, everything seemed to be taking on extra meaning, and was hitting me harder than usual. I’d been on the trail for over a month, constantly worrying about food, water, did I mention water, and shelter, but this monument was tapping into something much deeper.

I followed the stone wall to the gap/entrance at the northeast corner, entered the protection of the wall, and looked up at the central stone where 7 rectangular stones lay stacked on each other. “SOLDIERSTONE” was etched into the top stone in large, bold, black letters; “VIETNAM” was etched in the same bold black letters two stones below it, and “SACRIFICE” was etched into one of the lowest stones.

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SOLDIERSTONE
In Memory of LONG WARS LOST and the Soldiers of
VIETNAM
Nếu khóc than mà tôi có thể biến đổi được tiến trình sự việc,
Thì dóng lệ của tôi sẽ đổ xuống không ngừng cho dện ngàn thu.
Still in Death Lies Everyone and the Battle is Lost
SACRIFICE

Those three words, “SOLDIERSTONE”, “VIETNAM”, and “SACRIFICE” all hit me at once, as I walked towards the stone, and one man came to mind, my dad. In that moment Soldierstone took on a different meaning for me, it became about my dad. It was about the things he sacrificed, the things he lived through, the things he’d done, and the things he never talks about with anyone. I blinked back a tear, my dad was far away, and in this moment I really wanted to give him a hug.

As I moved closer to the North side of the monument, I read all the blocks more carefully, trying to understand the greater context. I had to read “Long Wars Lost” multiple times as it sunk in. Vietnam was a long war, with US involvement from 1957 until 1975, and according the Veterans Administration, “It was the first war in which the US failed to meet its objectives,” in other words, it was the first war we, as Americans, had lost. ~2.7 million of the ~8.7 million Americans that served during the Vietnam era (1964 – 1973) were deployed to Vietnam. More than 60,000 Americans were killed, and more than 150,000 Americans were wounded.  So many were so young, and had sacrificed so much for their country, but instead of returning to victory parades, praise, and glory, they returned to war protests, sneers, and a country inundated by images of a war that wasn’t all glamour, glitz, and glory; it was gritty, raw, and gory.

“I’m sorry,” I said, blinking back tears as I looked up at the monument. “I’m sorry we abandoned you, and left you to deal with this alone. I’m sorry that you were forgotten and that we are forgetting.” The wind dried my tears as they rolled down my cheeks. My dad was a Vietnam Combat vet, but I knew almost nothing about the Vietnam War. I hadn’t lived through Vietnam, I hadn’t learned about it in school, and it was a thing that people just didn’t talk about. “I’m failing you, all of you” I said, realizing that my ignorance was a form of forgetting, and that my generation was forgetting Vietnam. “I will stop, I will learn, and I will remember,” I vowed as I set my backpack down, put on my jacket, and prepared to start learning and remembering.

I walked slowly around the monument, reading the inscriptions that were in English, and looking at those in unfamiliar languages.

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The south side of the monument is inscribed with the word “VALOR” and three poems: 1) “like the fallen leaves of Autumn in unregimented ranks, unremembered soldiers rest… eternally…” 2) “If by weeping I could change the course of events, my tears would pour down ceaselessly for a thousand autumns.” 3) “The appointed time… to be born… to die, to love… to hate, of War… for Peace”

Soldierstone was important, and as I walked around the monument, I felt that more people needed to know about it.  Why didn’t all the hikers know about it? There was a sign in the little dirt parking area about 0.2 miles from the Soldierstone that indicated that the CDT was 0.4 miles from the lot, but the sign up at the CDT didn’t say anything about Soldierstone.

At the base of each of the 4 faces of the monument sat an olive green ammo can. After reading all of the inscriptions that were in English, I circled around the monument and looked at the contents of each can. Most of the cans had tributes left by previous visitors in them: spent shell casings, campaign service metals, coins, and patches. I was deeply moved by the monument, the quote stones, and tributes and wanted to leave some sort of symbol of my support for our veterans.

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“Aha,” I thought, “I can leave my ‘I Support Combat Vets’ patch here as a tribute. It would be perfect!” As I stood, and started to go get my patches, I thought about all the conversations I’d had with vets that had noticed that patch. For many vets I encountered, it was the first patch that they noticed, and in many cases, the most important. I don’t carry the “I Support Combat Vets” for me, I carry it for the veterans I know, and those I haven’t met yet. I sighed as I realized that I had a responsibility to use my patch wisely, and that leaving it at Soldierstone may have made me feel better, but that it was probably more important for me to continue carrying it as I was, smack dab in the middle of my patches for everyone, veterans and civilians alike, to see my support.

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A picture of the patches I have carried on all three of my thru-hikes (Appalachian Trail 2013, Pacific Crest Trail 2014, and Continental Divide Trail 2018) including a large black patch stating in bold yellow print, “I SUPPORT COMBAT VETS”, shown here on the summit of one of Colorado’s 14,000 footers.

Inside the ammo can on the South side of the monument was a log book as well as a pamphlet, which provided information about the making of the Soldierstone as well as context and translations of many of the surrounding Quote Stones. I picked up the pamphlet, sat down on the stoop of the East Side of the monument (which was in the shade and out of howling winds) and began to read…

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“SOLDIERSTONE MEMORIAL. INFORMATION BY REQUEST ONLY. FOREST SERVICE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE,” and below an address that I have chosen not to disclose for reasons I will describe later, it continues, “NOT INTENDED FOR DISPLAY OR WIDE DISTRIBUTION.”

“Hmmm,” I thought, eyebrows raised and forehead crinkled, that’s unusual. “Not intended for display or wide distribution,” I’d never seen anything like that on a USFS pamphlet before.

Soldierstone was created by a retired U.S. army Lieutenant Colonel that served from 1962 to 1973, primarily with the soldiers and paramilitaries of Vietnam and Laos. When Soldierstone was erected in 1995 the Lt. Col. had asked for no publicity and no media stating, “Unfortunately, there is not enough distance from that tragic time for Americans to empathize with the proud pathos this small memorial represents.” He described the intent of Soldierstone in different ways in letters, as well as in drafts of a book he was writing to accompany the monument:

  • “It is to be an American Soldiers’ anonymous tribute to forgotten Soldiers.”
  • “SOLDIERSTONE is to be an American Soldiers’ Tribute to our forgotten allies.”
  • “A poignant reminder of our battlefield allies. It also asks of America a maturity to honor the defiant stands of soldiers in their seasons of death.”

As I continued to read the pamphlet I learned why there were no signs indicating the existence of Soldierstone on the CDT (also the Colorado Trail at that point). The creators of the monument had been concerned that the trail users might vandalize it. This realization deeply saddened me. The monument felt so important, so powerful, that I’d felt like every CDT hiker should take this detour out of respect not just to the forgotten soldiers and forgotten allies the monument was designed for, but to all the veterans of Long Wars Lost, and modern wars where the line between friend and foe, and winning and losing, can be complicated, and ambiguous at times…

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The beautiful mountains that provide the backdrop for Soldierstone and the sub-alpine meadow where the gray tower of Soldierstone, as well as a dried up tub for cattle water, can be spotted if you look closely.

The hidden nature of this monument was intentional. The people that created the site didn’t want it to be highly advertised, but preferred the location be spread by word-of-mouth, both to limit the risk of vandalism, and to minimize traffic through the fragile sub-alpine environment.

“Well, that explains a lot,” I sighed, my relationship with Soldierstone becoming more complicated by the minute. How was I going to write about my experience here, and convey the importance of this place while respecting the creators intent? In 1995 there still wasn’t enough distance for Americans to empathize with the proud pathos the memorial was meant to represent, was that still true in 2018?

When I walked into Soldierstone, I hadn’t known the creators intent, and hadn’t even realized that the memorial was specific to the Vietnam-era until I reached the ~10 foot tower at its center. The sentiments and quotes etched into the rocks at Soldierstone come from across the globe, across the centuries, and they feel timeless. (I have, ultimately, decided to share my story and experience of Soldierstone, while honoring the anonymity of the site location and the anonymity of its creators.)

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The inscription on this Quote Stone is in Chinese and is paired with English that states, “The Sacrifice… Stratagem Eleven”. The English translation is, “Sacrifice the Plum Tree for the Peach Tree.”

I sat there on the stoop, reading the translations of the quote stones in the pamphlet, thinking about war, the complexities of Vietnam, and my dad. Like many Vietnam Vets, my dad doesn’t talk about his experiences in Vietnam very often, only occasionally alluding to places and times, and memories he wishes he didn’t have. Memories of things he’s seen, heard, and done that remain vivid 50 years later, things that he cannot and will not forget. I wanted to call my dad, to check in and see how he was doing. I wanted him to explain this complicated place to me, to explain what it all meant. I wanted him to tell me that it was all OK, and that he was OK… I wanted it all to make sense, I wanted to share this place with him, I wanted to acknowledge the burden that I know he carries, without forcing him to relive memories he wishes he didn’t have.

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Soldiers, including my father, in Vietnam circa 1968 during Operation Big Money. Navy Photo by JOCS (Senior Chief Journalist) Ed Nelson courtesy of my dad. Dad is an army guy and says I should mention that, “The guy in the T-shirt, he’s a Navy guy.”

Instead of calling my dad, I stood up and walked among the Quote Stones, trying to reconcile my initial impressions of Soldierstone with the intent of its creators. Read together, stones 2 and 3 of Soldierstone said: In memory of Long Wars Lost and the soldiers of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 million Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people died during the war, including both military and civilian casualties. According to the Lt. Col.’s sister, her brother created the monument because:

“He was impressed with a 10-year-old boy who had both legs blown off and crawled to the post to give a message to the Americans, which saved their lives… That experience just really impressed him so much – that so many people gave their lives, or jeopardized their lives. He just felt that they should be recognized.” https://www.military.com/memorial-day/mountaintop-mystery.html

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The inscription on this Quote Stone reads, “It is a worth thing to fight for one’s freedom; it is another sight finer to fight for another man’s.

Shortly before his death in 1995, the Lt. Col. wrote in a letter to the stonecutter that made Soldierstone possible:

“Many of them died because of my ‘push’ and drive. Yes, I believed in what we were trying to do; and fought as much for them as for us, carrying a false hope that they would ultimately benefit. But they paid the ultimate price. But I think they knew that I cared; and now, very largely because of your help, my promise to them has been kept and I can go to a ‘Soldier’s Peace’.” http://hiddencolorado.kunc.org/soldierstone/

I was unsettled, but I needed to make my own peace with this place. What happened in Vietnam isn’t a comfortable thing to think about, and neither is the way that we, as Americans, treated the Vietnam vets when they returned. Soldierstone wasn’t about being comfortable, it was about remembering, and acknowledging the complexities of war and the lives of the soldiers that fight them and the civilians caught in the middle of them.

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The final page of the USFS pamphlet states, “YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN”, and shows a black and white photograph with a traditional, ceremonial, salute to fallen soldiers: a pair of black combat boots in the foreground and rows of M16s planted in the ground covered with soldiers helmets (or jungle hats) fading off into the distance.

I returned to the monument at the heart of Soldierstone and read through some of the log book. My thoughts turned back to my dad and the vets that would come after me as I added my entry to the log book, heaved my pack onto my back, and walked back towards the trail.

Would this place have been able to bring some peace to my dad, like it had for some of the vets that visited, and for the Lt. Col that created it? I didn’t know. He was unlikely to get a chance to visit this remote place in the high mountains, and neither my words nor my pictures could do it justice. I wished that my dad was there so I could give him a hug and tell him that I loved him.

Halfway across the meadow I checked my mapping app to make sure that I was still on track and noticed that I had cell service. I couldn’t give my dad a hug, but I could call him and tell him that I loved him. Sheltering my phone from the wind, I dialed home. It rang a couple times before dad picked up:

“Hi Dad, I love you!”

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Spoiler Alert! :) My dad and mom met me near the end of my CDT thru-hike, and walked across the border with me. My mom snapped this photo of dad and I, hand in hand, patches flying, as we approached the Canadian border.


 

Notes:

I would later learn that there are 36 Quote Stones, each weighing 300 lbs, scattered around the central Soldierstone monument. I would also learn more about the other inscriptions on the central Soldierstone:

  • Stone 1 (top): SOLDIERSTONE
  •  Stone 2: In Memory of LONG WARS LOST and the Soldiers of
  • Stone 3: VIETNAM, LAOS and CAMBODIA
  • Stone 4: Translations of:
    • “If by weeping I could change the course of events, my tears would pour down ceaselessly for a thousand years.” In Vietnamese, Lao, English, and Cambodian
  • Stone 6: SACRIFICE, COURAGE, VALOR, HONOR
  • Stone 7: blank on all faces
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A Quote Stone inscribed with a Vietnamese proverb that translates to: “Who could say that “Heaven” is blind?” in the foreground, the South and East sides of the Soldierstone monument in the background.

References:

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Soldierstone in the background; in the foreground a Quote Stone in a combination of English and German reads, “Left behind in the Tonkin Delta. Died for France? Yes, died for France.”