Special Hike Gives Memorial Day New Meaning for Martin’s Point Employees

Posted 06/24/22
Stones for soldiers displayed with small American flags

On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Martin’s Point employees Stacey Pardales and Kimberly MacDonald went for a hike. But this was no ordinary climb. In addition to the usual snacks, water, and raingear, each of their packs held a special stone honoring a fallen Maine hero, a young American who gave his life as a member of the U.S. military.

Stacey and Kimberly were two of 48 hikers to join The Summit Project (TSP) for a three-day event that culminated in climbing The Owl, a rock-studded, 3,700-foot peak in Maine’s Baxter State Park. TSP — a nonprofit founded in 2001 as a living memorial — holds two major events a year to recognize the sacrifices made by Maine soldiers and their families.

Because both Stacey and Kimberly work with military families through their roles with US Family Health Plan, they were eager to participate. Stacey enrolls US Health plan members and also helps many veterans with financial assistance for health care. Kimberly travels much of Maine, helping families secure healthcare coverage and talking with military members before and after they deploy.

“The military is a close knit family,” says Stacey. “And this project is all about Maine soldiers.” “Out in the field, I hear a lot of stories about loss,” adds Kimberly. “It’s all very real.” 

Stones for soldiers

As participants in the TSP Baxter event, hikers summit a significant Maine peak, each carrying a memorial stone that weighs about six pounds (one weighed in at a whopping 22). Divided into three teams — Red, White, and Blue — each hiker is also tasked with researching the soldier they hike for and following up with the soldier’s family with their thoughts on the experience after the event.

Stacey carried a stone for U.S. Army SPC Justin L. Buxbaum, who died in 2008 at age 23 from injuries sustained in a non-combat incident. “He sounded like an amazing person, the heart and soul of his family, and went to South Portland High School before doing tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Each rock has special meaning for the family. Justin’s is heart-shaped and comes from Chebeague Island, the home of his grandparents and the place spent his childhood.

Kimberly carried a stone for U.S. Army SGT Edmund W. McDonald of Casco, who died in North Kabul at age 25 in a convoy accident. Edmund had already completed two tours in Iraq before he was deployed to Afghanistan. His family chose a stone for him found near their home in Westbrook.

This and other TSP events remind our Maine communities to honor and remember these soldiers and the sacrifice they made for our country.

“It’s bittersweet for these Gold Star families,” says Kimberly. “We’re honoring their loved ones, but it also opens up the wound.”

To the top

The trails at Baxter Park were cleared to opened for the season on May 27, just two days before the Summit hike. With rain, sleet and even hail on May 28, footing was wet and slick, adding to an already challenging task. They battled black flies, newly broken in boots, stream crossings, and gravity as the path morphed from a piney path through the woods to piles of huge boulders.

It wasn’t easy. Kimberly earned the nick name Head Banger for walking into a fallen tree that she missed by focusing on the trail at her feet. Stacey badly wrenched her knee with two miles to go. “The pain was excruciating but I kept feeling the stone in my pack and saying Justin, help me. It’s very moving to carry the memorial stone for the fallen hero and his family. It gives you strength.”

They were awarded with a magnificent view of neighboring Katahdin and its spring cap of snow. With this dramatic backdrop, each hiker acknowledged the soldier he or she was hiking for, and the memorial stones were carefully placed together.

“You tell the story and how it impacted you. It was incredibly emotional,” said Stacey. “Everybody cried.” Then the group returned the stones to their packs and headed down.

“We are extremely grateful for the amazing care and dedication to the TSP mission that Kimberly and Stacy exemplified throughout the three-month train up and execution of this event,” says Greg Johnson, Executive Director of The Summit Project and a veteran himself. “Nine years ago, TSP promised to the Maine Gold Star families we would ensure their loved ones would never be forgotten. That drives our mission every day, but it can only be accomplished by the selfless and unwavering support from the people of this community. Thank you to Martin's Point and their employees.”

New connections and more desire to help

Stacey and Kimberly got back as much as they gave. “We’re so thankful to Martin’s Point for making it possible for us to go,” says Stacey. She and Kimberly had connected as friends through work, and traveling to Baxter, staying and New England Outdoor Center in Millinocket with other hikers and families, and sharing this tribute was an amazing chance to get to know what drives each other and deepen their friendship.

The experience also launched new friendships. Stacey and Justin Buxbaum’s grandparents have plans to gather in January near the date of Justin’s birthday.

“It also made us want to get even more involved, says Kimberly. “We have these opportunities and we need to take advantage of exploring them more and encourage our colleagues to join in. After being embedded in Maine with our military families for 40 years, there’s so much opportunity.”

“We work with military families every day and they understand the commitment they make when they raise their hands, but this project brings it right home to your heart and makes it so much more real,” says Kimberly. “The families thank us, but it’s really us that should appreciate them and find more ways to give back.”

Honor a soldier in September

You don’t have to wait long to get involved. The Summit Project’s next major event will be held September 24 in beautiful Acadia National Park. There’s no cost to participate. Learn more about the Acadia event here. To learn more about TSP, visit thesummitproject.org.